Nome-Beltz students travel to Hawaii for cultural exchange
Sixteen Nome-Beltz students — 14 seniors and two juniors — traveled to Hawaii last month to learn how their counterparts on Oahu live and carry on their native culture. The exchange is part of a three-year program called TASK, Teacher Ambassadors Sharing Knowledge, which has already seen Nome teachers and educators from Wai’anae on Oahu visit each other with the aim of collaborating on culturally informed STEM ( short for science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Nome-Beltz Director Jay Thomas explained that the purpose of the TASK program is to bring cultural relevance to the program and highlight both Alaskan Native and Native Hawaiian similarities of two Native cultures, struggling to maintain cultural identity despite Western colonization.
In October 2019, 22 teachers from Wai’anea and Nanakuli came to Nome. Then, in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and overwhelmed plans for exchange visits taking place in 2020 or 2021. During spring break this year, 16 teachers from Nome Public Schools visited O’ uh. From April 10-16, 16 Nome students, plus three chaperones, traveled to the island to learn about the cultural and linguistic revitalization efforts undertaken by Wai’anea High School and Nanakuli Middle School, among others.
Students in Nome were introduced to Polynesian culture with an entertaining “crash course” at the Polynesian Cultural Center, a luau and an evening show aimed at educating tourists about the culture, customs, songs and dance of the Polynesia. Over the next few days, Nome students became visitors as the route took them off the beaten path into the community of Wai’anea and Nanakuli on O’ahu’s west and north shore. “The reason we chose Nanakuli and Wai’anae is because the communities have the highest population of Native Hawaiians [on Oahu] and it’s an area that looks like Nome and is struggling socio-economically,” Principal Thomas explained. “We were looking for schools that had the same difficulties.” Before entering the Waai’ainae school, or any other place the students went, they were greeted with an ‘ole kahea, a song of welcome, and as they left, the Hawaiian hosts released them with another song. farewell. Wai’anae students introduced Nome children to their Searider Productions program – with a screen printing workshop where they produce clothing with the Searider and Wai’anae school logo, as well as 3D printing labs and a studio photo where students learn photography and even produce reports. Their cultural program includes seaweed and shrimp farming, planting and studying the uses of native plants. The effort in Wai’anae had been in the making for a decade, when years ago gangs wreaked havoc on the impoverished neighborhood and dedicated teachers knew they had to offer their students a meaningful alternative to a life of drug and alcohol addiction. Cultural revitalization and language immersion are now the result of these early efforts, and student hosts showing that the Nome children knew their craft: not only did they confidently sing Hawaiian songs, but their daily lives were punctuated by Hawaiian knowledge of plants, Hula Mingling with their Hawaiian peers, in the warm trade wind breeze laden with the scent of plumeria flowers, Nome students described their cold, icy world of hunting, fishing, and subsistence sports at NYO to their new Hawaiian friends. Students then experienced a remarkable revival of a kalo farm, deep in the Wai’anea Valley and learned the ancient method of dividing land and caring for the land – malama ‘aina – and family, the old-fashioned Hawaiian way.
On the North Shore, students visited fish ponds inspired by the ancient way of using the tides to fill brackish ponds to give mules a healthy start in life. A channel had to be dug between the ocean shore and the ponds, so Nome-Beltz students were enlisted to help and they did the deed in less than an hour.
“We relied on our Hawaiian partners to be visitors, not tourists,” Thomas said.
The grant that enabled the exchange was written by Glenda Findlay, director of K-12 outreach at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Findlay and Thomas collaborated on the grant. Thomas said the goal was to look at science and the western way of teaching STEM and make it relevant to students whose heritage includes indigenous knowledge. The program aimed to expose students to making that cultural connection between science and “indigenous ways of knowing,” whether in agriculture, as exemplified by the Kalo patch, or seaweed and shrimp farming.
In the fall, pandemic permitting, Hawaiian students should come to Nome and tour the area. Thomas said the plan is to write a continuation scholarship to maintain the exchange between the Alaskan and Hawaiian cultures. “We really just opened the door, there’s so much more to do,” he said.