Skype Connects Maine Youngsters With Wild Alaska

Editor's note: The following was written by Elizabeth Shea, who works with the National Park Service's Shared Beringian Heritage Program. It details a unique program through which students in Maine were able to connect with program officials in Alaska through Skype.

As a fifth-grader living in Maine, you would probably not spend a typical Saturday night at town hall dancing with your parents and grandparents. But in Savoonga, Alaska, that would be the 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 fifth grade from the Marshwood Great Works School in South Berwick, Maine, recently spoke to Elizabeth Shea, project manager for the Service’s Shared Beringian Heritage Program. This is the second year that representatives from the program have been 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.

Ms. Shea talked about the Beringia region and answered questions from students on a range of issues affecting the area. But this was not a typical presentation -- the entire exchange was done as a live video feed through Skype and the students were able to speak directly to her. She could see them, and they could see her projected on a large screen setup in the library. This year the audience grew substantially and increased in size from two classrooms last year to the entire fifth 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, 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 who are on the ground and who have real and tangible experiences to relate.

For example, 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.” Ms. Shea was able to explain to the kids the significance of this event and give them a brief historical lesson in US-Russian relations during and after the Cold War by relating the experiences of Alaskan and Chukotkan natives.

They also wanted to see exactly what living a subsistence lifestyle looked like, so images of a bowhead whale being harvested after a successful hunt in Barrow brought the daily existence of the hunters to life. It was hard for them to believe that in America there were groups of people whose diets are 80 percent subsistence-based, and who hunted, prepared, and ate food not bought in a store. In addition to subsistence activities, they saw different types of native art forms, a typical village housing unit, and an average Saturday night gathering in a rural Alaska village.

The students 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.

Next year the Beringia Program hopes to include a live link between the kids in Maine and a group of students in rural Alaska. The interest shown by the Marshwood fifth graders in Alaska village life was considerable, and the SBHP hopes to facilitate a knowledge exchange that would be beneficial to both groups of students.

As a surprise to the kids, who will begin a new learning unit on the Iditarod in January, they also had the opportunity to speak with dog musher and Iditarod veteran Braxton Peterson. Mr. 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, Mr. Braxton plans to run the Yukon Quest sled dog race in February of this year, so he will have time to turn around and cheer on his mentor in the Iditarod in March.

The kids were very eager and had a great deal of questions for Mr. Braxton, mainly focused on his experiences during the Iditarod and what motivates 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 then they start to grow up in the puppy pen. Then they will 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, trust you, and will go to the end of the world for you.”

The 2013 Yukon Quest begins in Whitehorse, Canada, this year, and will finish in Mr. Braxton’s hometown of Faribanks in mid-February. In the meantime, he will now work hard and train to get the dogs ready to run in both races, first the Yukon Quest and then the Iditarod. 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 follow Mr. Braxton in the Yukon Quest and Lance in the 2013 Iditarod using Facebook or Twitter, and with a promise from the Beringia Program to come back next year.

Comments

What a wonderful opportunity for all those kids. Hopefully, there will be kids at both ends who will get to know one another next year.

Americans are amazingly diverse and we all could benefit from getting acquainted with others who share this land with us. I'll bet that less than one in ten adult Americans have ever even heard of Beringia. And the differences between Americans who live in places like an Iowa farm, a Washington state logging town, a southwestern hay farm, a Montana cattle ranch, a comfortable suburb, or an inner city neighborhood are profound. But so are the similarities.

I wonder what would happen if we could all meet one another and become friends.

The more that we get acquainted with others different from ourselves as children, the less the chance of conflicts with others different from ourselves as adults.

I agree, Rick B. Good for the older crowd to have those kind of breakthroughs, also.

Here's to breakthroughs and the atmosphere that allows them to happen.

Happy New Years, friends and adversaries alike !