Scammon Bay youth share the power of protection through connection

by Jennifer Nu

Group photo of youth and instructors after gathering wood- Photo credit: Georgianna Ningeulook.

A group of youth in Scammon Bay has courageously faced the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic by practicing skills that help others in their community.

“We are so proud of the youth for working hard all summer,” said Georgianna Ningeulook, lead prevention coordinator of the Qungasvik program in Scammon Bay.

Qungasvik is the Yup’ik word for a traditional container that holds objects, such as tools. The program is a strength-based intervention collaboratively developed by Yup’ik communities in the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta and researchers at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) Center for Alaska Native Health Research (CANHR).

Youth in Scammon Bay deliver wood to an elder in town; Photo credit: Wybon Rivers.

Community members lead efforts to increase strengths and protections against alcohol misuse and suicide by focusing on culturally meaningful activities that promote “reasons for sobriety” and “reasons for life.” The program follows a model based on the qasgiq, which was traditionally the men’s house and also a central place for community gatherings, ceremonies, and celebrations.

Based on this framework, Ningeulook and her team collaborate with a modern-day qasgiq, a core group of elders and community leaders, to plan year-round seasonally-based activities that teach youth practical skills along with qanruyutet, which are words to live by for living a good life.

The program first launched a few years ago in Scammon Bay, and the team has tirelessly organized weekly activities including fishing, hunting, and gathering traditional foods, and also making their own tools, such as fish hooks, harpoons, and blackfish traps.

“Our program is about yuuyaraq – the way of life of our people,” said Wybon Rivers, a dedicated Qungasvik instructor. He credits his father and grandfather for teaching him yuuyaraq. It brings him joy to share and teach what he knows with the youth.

The activities are open to all youth in the community. Around 30 youth have attended. Several youths show up every time.

“Being out on the land, hunting and fishing, and taking care of food teaches the youth about hard work and responsibility,” added Wybon Rivers. “If you’re going to give something to elders, we tell them to make sure it’s presentable and clean.” The youth learn to pluck birds, rinse shellfish, and deliver foods right away to elders.

Scammon Bay strong: hauling driftwood for elders- Photo credit: Georgianna Ningeulook.

The instructors emphasize the importance of giving and sharing with those in the community who may not have the resources to go hunting themselves, especially those who do not have a boat, motor, gun, or shells.

“It’s always good to teach young kids to share their catches, so when they have their own kids they can also pass what’s has been passed from many generations,” explained Abraham Rivers, another Qungasvik instructor.

This past year was especially celebratory for 15-year old Tisha Kaganak who went halibut fishing for the first time and also got her first moose.

“We butchered it and I gave it all away to the elders,” said Kaganak. “It means a lot for Qungasvik to teach young people to learn this. Someone has to teach us because our parents and our grandparents and our elders won’t be here for a long time, so it’s good to be learning our culture,” she said.

Safety precautions during the Covid-19 pandemic led the team to innovate by delivering tool-making kits for youth and other home-based projects. They also organized outdoor activities with smaller, physically-distanced groups of youth.

“We kept going with the activities because it’s so important for youth to have something to do, especially during lockdowns,” said Ningeulook.

One of the main activities in 2020 was gathering driftwood. From May through August, several boats took small groups of youth to gather wood and stockpile boatloads of logs at the school. At the end of logging season, the group focused on bucking a huge pile of wood before freeze-up.

“We were cutting wood three days a week, sawing and chopping the wood with youth,” said Wybon Rivers, one of the main Qungasvik instructors.

The youth showed up, rain or shine, sometimes going home completely soaked. By doing so, they learned valuable lessons for life.

“No matter how tired you are or how hard something is, we can’t give up,” remembers Alma Smith, age 19. “After every storm is something so beautiful, like all our hard work will pay off in the end.”

The group delivered trailer-loads of wood to around forty elders in the community.

“The best part was the elders’ expression,” recalled Wybon Rivers. “They were very happy. You could see the big smiles on their faces.”

Tisha Kaganak also appreciated contributing to the elders’ happiness.

“It made me think how we should be doing this more because some elders don’t have young people to help them get what they need.” The gifts of everyone’s efforts inspire them to continue the tradition of taking care of each other especially during difficult times.

The pandemic has added an extra layer of stress for everyone, which can be overwhelming for young people. As a primary prevention program, Qungasvik weaves a safety net of trusting relationships where youth can be open about their feelings and be supported. The coordinators especially keep an eye on youth who are depressed or experiencing hardship.

“I tell the youth that the wilderness is the best healing place,” said Wybon Rivers. He shares his own personal experiences of when he was grieving after losing his brother to suicide and how he found peace and purpose through hunting and fishing.

“For the ones going through tough times, we want them to get their minds cleared of what they’re going through in life. These activities help them face their problems.”

Isaac Titus, a 16-year-old in Scammon Bay, reflected on meaningful lessons from his time with Qungasvik.

“I became more aware of the land,” he shared. “It’s important to be out because there’s always something to do and learn outside.”

In addition to mending a fishing net and working on driftwood, Titus recognized other skills that he gained. “The activities helped me to learn to deal with certain challenges. I think of a way to overcome it.”

Over time, Georgianna Ningeulook has noticed how the youth have grown stronger and closer to each other.

“A lot of them didn’t believe in themselves when they were hunting, but after their success, their happiness is contagious when they gave their catches to the community,” she said. “They form bonds around healthy activities by connecting to who they are as Yup’ik people.”

The strengths of these caring relationships and power within each person all contribute to overcoming challenges and living a good life.

“As instructors, we are so proud of our youth who give their time to help their elders and their community,” said Ningeulook, her voice filled with emotion. “We know that Scammon Bay is successful because of them.”

The Qungasvik program in Scammon Bay is supported by funding from the SAMSHA Native Connections grant in partnership with UAF CANHR, with additional support from RurAL CAP’s Youth Development and Culture Grant program.

Jennifer Nu writes from the Center for Alaska Native Health Research Institute of Arctic Biology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.