News and Events of the Bering Strait School District
Saturday November 25th 2017

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Looking At Tomorrow – NACTEC Travels To Little Diomede

By Susanne Thomas

Part of my work as a teacher at NACTEC is traveling to BSSD sites and working with students, the schools, parents and community members to discuss and promote the program. NACTEC’s program is designed to provide high school students with the necessary life and work readiness skills in preparation for life after high school. When visiting sites, students, teachers, and members of the community have the opportunity to meet and get to know the NACTEC staff, ask any questions about the program and if needed, NACTEC will assist the students and parents in filling out the application and permission forms.

Little Diomede

Recently, I had the opportunity to go to Little Diomede to visit the school. I had been curious about this island, especially since Amanda Ozenna, this year’s only graduating high school senior, attended NACTEC in February during “Getting Ready for Post-Secondary Education” to get her college and scholarship applications completed. Amanda had been working very hard since the helicopter service limited her choices of travel and shortened her time at NACTEC to get her paperwork done.

The students participating in this course were facing paperwork like the FAFSA and the S.P.A.N.S. applications. UAA’s Willy Templeton and Andrea “Andee” Cordano, UAF’s Gabrielle Russell, BSSD counselor Tom App and I worked with nine students on various applications. During the session the students took part in “College Goal Sunday” at UAF’s Northwest Campus in Nome, where they received information and instruction via video conferencing. Amanda has since been accepted to the University of Alaska on a scholarship and is invited to visit the University of Alaska Southeast in June.

Sandra Menadelook, Marie Pushruk and Amanda Ozenna in the NACTEC classroom

Jeffrey Tocktoo and Kristy Obruk discussing applications with BSSD counselor Tom App

Kristy Obruk, Dolly Eningowuk and Jeffrey Tocktoo working as a team

College Goal Sunday at Northwest Campus

Gabrielle Russell, UAF, helping Vanessa Eningowuk

Willy Templeton, UAA, making Jeffrey Tocktoo laugh

Andrea “Andee” Cordano, UAA, following up with Amanda Ozenna

I had never been to the island and was a little anxious. On the flight there, I watched the pilot observe the partially open ice in the Bering Strait between Wales and the Diomede Islands, and was wondering how or if we would make a successful landing.

Landing at Little Diomede with Big Diomede in the background

Then we turned between the Diomede Islands, and there was the village as if clinging to the rock, and the runway on the ice with moisture showing in places. The small village looks towards Big Diomede. After circling twice we made a safe landing, and passengers walked to the village while snowmachines were carrying our luggage. I spent some time at the school with Elise Davis, the principal of Diomede School and her four teachers, who made me feel welcome and allowed me to choose a classroom with a wonderful view of Big Diomede, beyond the international dateline, as my overnight room. I was literally able to look at tomorrow.

I carefully walked around the snowy paths in the village after school. While I was taking photos of a brand new skin boat, Orville “Odge” Ahkinga, Jr., who built the boat, came by. He had sewn together three walrus skins to make this big boat. Once the ice breaks between the Diomede Islands, it will soon be used to hunt whales.

Skinboat inside detail

Children came out to play on the ice and on the helicopter pad in the afternoon. It is built of rocks flown in from Nome. Then Robert Soolook, Jr., who I had met at the school, needed to tend to his crab holes for about an hour. I had never been crabbing, so I went with him on his snowmachine. Robert drove on the ice to an area where others were tending crab holes as well. He pointed out where polar bears like to den on the island, but unfortunately (or fortunately?) there was no bear to be seen.

Playground with a great view

Robert showed me the crabbing tools and explained how the six ice holes were cleaned and looked after. The first hole almost yielded a big crab, but then the crab disappeared into the 40 ft deep water.

Each hole is drilled with an auger versus the old-fashioned ice pick that was used before. Making holes would often take a whole day; then the men would come back the next day and actually start fishing. With the auger, the process is sped up, and fishing can start the same day the hole is drilled.

Bait of salmon or herring is tied to the end of the line and left in the hole. If a crab has taken the bait, the fisher very diligently and slowly pulls up the line and hopes that the crab will let go of the rock it is clinging to, but not of the bait. A self-made wooden “spoon” with a woven center helps the fisher to secure the crab when it is within reach under the surface of the water.

Robert is preparing to bring a crab out of the water, helping it with his “spoon”Robert also talked about his participation in the Bering Bridge Expedition of 1989 when six Russians and six Americans – with three Yupik Natives each – set out from Russia on dog sleds during the winter and made it to the Diomede Islands. This expedition would re-connect old traditions of hunters and fishers living on both sides of the Russian – American border. There are still quite a few people on Little Diomede whose close relatives live in Russia.

While I was watching, Robert caught a crab. Then we went back to the village; crab holes can be tended for hours at a time, and family members take turns.

When we took off the island the next afternoon, I left with a lot of respect for this group of Alaskans who used to live off the sea entirely and still live by mostly using their traditional ways of living and hunting.

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