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Bringing Beringia to Life through Skype

February 5, 2013
Whale being harvested in Barrow, 2010 Whale being harvested in Barrow, 2010. Photo by Herman Ahsoak

As a 5th grader living in Maine, you don't usually go to town hall to dance with your parents & grandparents on a typical Saturday night. But in Savoonga, Alaska, that's your only choice. The differences in the two lifestyles could not be more pronounced, and as part of a learning unit on Beringia, students in Maine were able to literally see some of these cultural contrasts. And they were fascinated. Through Skype, the entire 5th grade from the Marshwood Great Works School in South Berwick, Maine spoke to the National Park Service's Shared Beringian Heritage Program (SBHP) Project Manager Elizabeth Shea. This is the second year that the program was asked to participate and speak to students about life in the Beringia region, which spans the Bering Strait and includes areas in Alaska and in Chukotka, Russia. She talked about the Beringia region and answered questions from students on a range of issues affecting the area. However, this was not a typical presentation, as the entire exchange was done as a live video feed and the students were able to speak directly to Elizabeth. She could see them, and they could see her projected on a large screen set-up in the library. This year the audience grew substantially and increased in size from 2 classrooms last year to the entire 5th grade and more.

It was evident from the questions last year that the kids wanted to know more about life in rural Beringian villages, especially for kids their own age. Both pictures and videos were shown on the large screen through Skype, and the emphasis was on subjects like the subsistence lifestyle, cultural traditions, things to do in the village, material comforts, and issues that are facing residents of Beringia. While an in-person presentation offers many advantages, a Skype exchange allows the students to connect with people from across the world and expand their worldview. Skyping allows them to learn from people actually on the ground who have tangible experiences to relate. To demonstrate the similarities of some cultural traditions in Alaska and Russia, the kids were shown a video from the 2011 Beringia Days in Nome. The video showed a group of female elders from both sides of the Bering Strait come forward and dance together, in unison, the "Friendship Dance."

Musher Braxton Peterson at the 2012 Iditarod finish Musher Braxton Peterson at the 2012 Iditarod finish.

They also wanted to see the subsistence lifestyle in action, so images of a bowhead whale being harvested after a successful hunt in Barrow brought the daily existence of the hunters to life. In addition, they saw different types of native art forms, a typical village housing unit, and an average Saturday night gathering in a rural Alaska village. They were fascinated by a video from Savoonga showing a large gathering of kids and teenagers dancing to the ancient songs of their ancestors in jeans and hoodies, regularly checking their cell phones while the elders around them beat the traditional skin drums. The obvious contradictions seemed to grab their attention, and when the opportunity came for questions, they wanted to know about the future of village life, how climate change was affecting the region, and what opportunities existed for kids like the ones they saw in the video.

As a surprise to the students, who will begin another learning unit on the Iditarod in January, they had the opportunity to speak with dog musher and Iditarod veteran Braxton Peterson. Braxton has lived and trained with dog-mushing legend Lance Mackey for most of his life, and ran and finished his first Iditarod last year. Representing Mackey's Comeback Kennels, Braxton plans to run the Yukon Quest sled dog race this year, so he will have time to turn around and cheer on his mentor in the Iditarod. The kids were very eager and had tons of questions for Braxton, which mainly focused on his experiences during the Iditarod and what motivated him to be a dog-musher. When asked about life with sled dogs and his relationship to them, he said "You watch as these tiny little puppies are born and you watch as they start to grow in the puppy pen. Then they get put in with a team where they are annoying and don’t know how to run on a harness or really know anything. You watch as they go from that to becoming these strong, mature athletes that love you and will go to the end of the w orld for you." While Braxton isn't running the 2013 Iditarod, he plans to do it again in the near future. In the meantime, he will now work hard and train with Lance to get the dogs ready to run in March. With seven former champions and a large international contigent, the 2013 Iditarod promises to be an exciting experience for both the students and teachers. The Skype chat ended with the students promising to root for Lance in the 2013 Iditarod, and with a promise from the Beringia Program to come back next year.

Last Updated: February 5, 2013