CIRI shareholder Clara Amidon (Yup’ik and Unangan) never dreamed she’d be teaching virtually during a pandemic. In fact, growing up in Alaska’s Bristol Bay region in the 1960s and early ‘70s, her family didn’t even own a television.
“We moved to Anchorage when I was 13, after my father passed away,” Clara recalls. “The city was a culture shock, and it took me a long while to get my footing. There were roads, homes, color TV… And not just one store—there were many!
“How to fit in, how to adapt—it’s a learning process, and I remember it well,” Clara continued. “And then that survival mechanism kicks in. You figure things out quickly as a young person, especially as a young Native person, because Our People are taught to observe.”
Those early memories helped prepare Clara for a career in teaching, first in Anchorage School District (ASD) public schools and then, for the last 13 years, at the Alaska Native Cultural Charter School (ANCCS).
A K-8 school, the mission of the ANCCS is to build student excellence through traditional cultural learning. The school is a Title 1 public charter school within the ASD, which means it receives supplementary funding to improve academic achievement for low-income students. In addition to academics, the school offers a curriculum focused on Alaska Native values, developing academic achievement, and social and emotional growth. Enrollment is open to all ASD students through a lottery system.
“I’m going to retire out of the Alaska Native Cultural Charter School,” Clara affirmed. “What drew me here was, as a teacher working in a traditional public school, I saw that Alaska Native students are culturally so quiet that they are almost unnoticed; they just kind of slide through the system. And a lot of the bright Native kids are overlooked. This school is so different in that our focus is cultural, because that’s where the learning starts.”
According to the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development, Alaska Native students have the lowest high-school graduation rates of any race or ethnicity – 69% versus the statewide average of 78%. The Postsecondary National Policy Institute reports that only 17% of Alaska Native/American Indian students continue their education after high school compared to 60% of the U.S. population.
Clara and her fellow ANCCS educators are working to change this. The school offers a cultural continuum that spans all students at each grade level, beginning with all Alaska Native cultures in kindergarten. For Clara’s fifth graders, the focus is Inupiaq and St. Lawrence Island Yup’ik.
“At this school, we have leaders coming out,” she said. “Their heads are tall because they know who they are. It’s a focus in all the grades.”
Of the Alaska Native languages still spoken, Yugtun/Cugtun (Central Alaska Yup’ik/Cup’ik) is by far the most widely spoken, with more than 10,000 highly proficient speakers. It is the only Indigenous language being spoken by children in some Alaska communities as a first language. As the number of fluent speakers declines, preserving and perpetuating the Yup’ik language has taken on new urgency.
Despite having grown up in Clark’s Point and Dillingham, Clara herself is not a Yup’ik speaker.
“Because my dad was a first-generation immigrant from the Philippine Islands, he would not allow us to learn,” Clara said. “My mother wanted to teach us Yup’ik, and I remember as a child I understood her. But my father would not even let us learn his language (Tagalog). He told us, ‘You are going to live in a society that is going to require you to learn and live English, and I want you to learn it and learn it well.’” She pauses, then chuckles. “It’s funny, because when I’m teaching, I use my ‘teacher voice.’ But when I’m more casual, my ‘local’ always comes out!
“I have such a close connection to my Yup’ik heritage,” Clara continued. “Very little with my dad’s heritage, because he immigrated, and I’ve never been to the Philippine Islands. My heritage, when I think about it, is Yup’ik and Unangan.”
Clara didn’t start to pursue her teaching degree until she was well into adulthood. Her mother passed away when she was 17, so she lived with an older sister until she finished high school. “I was already looking ahead—loss of mother, orphan, staying with my sister, and I had to work and take care of myself,” Clara recalls. “That’s where my mind was.”
She was 30 when she enrolled at the University of Alaska Anchorage, and it took her seven years to earn her teaching degree. “I was unable to commit to school full time because I was raising two kids and being a wife and mother,” Clara said. “And fishing, hunting, gathering—we didn’t stop (engaging in subsistence) just because we were in Anchorage!”
Clara briefly considered pursuing a business degree, but a childhood memory compelled her to choose teaching instead. Her father passed away when she was 9, and the family was still living in Bristol Bay. “We were at the hospital, and one of the nurses handed me this box. It was a box of reading materials meant for a teacher. My mother could not read. But I remember my mother’s eyes – they were so hopeful!” she recalled.
“I struggled with the concepts. I was a 9-year-old, and what’s in the teacher’s edition is not meant for a 9-year-old. And I remember my mother’s eyes. She was just so patient, waiting for me, waiting for that first lesson.
“And I did manage to get to that first lesson. But I didn’t understand. And after half an hour, I looked at my mother and said, ‘I can’t do this, I don’t know how.’ And I saw her face just… go down. I cry when I think about it now, and it’s a precious memory to me. So 20 years later, when I had the option of a business degree or teaching, that memory of my mother came to mind.”
Clara’s mother never did learn to read, and after moving to Anchorage, she relied on her daughters to help her navigate everything from the grocery store to signing legal documents.
“It’s that desire to help. I couldn’t help my mother, but could I help another student in need?” Clara mused. “Right now, with online learning, I’m constantly having to ask myself: how do I reach out and help those I can only see on a screen? And some of my students might not come from the most advantaged background. So how do I help them – how do spur the growth, how do I create the interest and then do it online in a Zoom class. It is a beast like no other. But for me, teaching is all about your passion. If you have a passion to elicit change and growth in another human being, you will be sharp enough, work hard enough, and jump through all the hoops to do this profession. The only way you get here is you care enough about the students. In life, you need to be 100% behind what you do.”
If you know an adult in need of reading, writing, English as a second language, computer-literacy or other life skills, visit the Literacy Council of Alaska website at literacycouncilofalaska.org.
For information about the Alaska Native Cultural Charter School, visit asdk12.org/anccs.