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Discarded Cup'ik cultural artifacts in village of Chevak set off tiff

Alex DeMarban
Cultural artifacts from Chevak, thrown in the town dump by the school administrators. Courtesy Earl Atchak

Prominent cultural leaders in the Southwest Alaska village of Chevak say they hope to oust school-district officials who decided to destroy an educational sod house and pitch hundreds of important historical items into the dump -- during the school's cultural week, no less.  

Left to rot in the rain for days were decades-old driftwood carvings, wooden masks made by former students, an ink-on-skin drawing of elders once used in dance festivals, as well as old photos, books and scores of other mementos documenting the village's efforts to keep the ancient Cup'ik culture alive.

The items, some donated by elders who died long ago, had been collected by John Pingayak for more than three decades while serving as the school's cultural instructor. Many things were burned or too wet to be salvaged, said carver and doll-maker Earl Atchak. 

"Those guys put a double-edged knife in our heart," said Atchak, referring to school officials with the locally run Kashunamiut School District. "People are looking at them as (if) they committed a crime against our culture. If anyone does that to a culture they do not belong in any village in Alaska, or even any city in the U.S."

The district superintendent and a Cup'ik school board member said the sod house was moldy, condemned and dangerous, and that a child had fallen through the roof over the summer and had to be retrieved by police, presenting a potential legal liability for the school. The school officials said Pingayak was told numerous times to remove the collection because the school wanted the sod house razed so the softball field it sits on could be used by students. 

"Don't get me wrong I'm all for my culture, but one of my duties is to make sure the school kids have a safe learning environment," said Ignaceous Chayalkun, a school board member. "This is not the whole village who is upset. These are two people who feel they need to restore credibility to their name. They're trying to make a big deal out of something they should have done a long time ago, and they were given numerous opportunities to remove things."

But Atchak said the action has struck a chord with many in the the village of 1,000 and even in other parts of Southwest Alaska, where residents are fiercely devoted to heritage after early 20th-century missionaries and educators sought to wipe out Native language and dancing.

"This is sort of like a replay, but in our time," Atchak said. "But this time we're able to save something, and we're not going to sit around and let them do this to us." 

Throwing out history

Pingayak retired from the school three years ago, but not before building the sod house with students as something of a museum and storing the items inside. Pingayak, who portrayed a whaler in the Drew Barrymore movie “Big Miracle,” maintains he was never told the collection would go to the dump. 

"If there are leaders not in tune with our community, then they don't need to be there," said Pingayak, 64. "People can't just disregard what our ancestors have done for us and our elders, too."

Ulric Ulroan, the longtime mayor and the school's shop instructor, said he's crestfallen after throwing the items away. He said he was following orders of principal Matt Good.

Good, who was raised in Pennsylvania and moved to Chevak in 2005 to teach, was out sick late last week and did not return phone calls seeking comment.

The incident happened early this month, during culture week. Students were supposed to dig a channel between two bends of a river, creating the shortcut that Chevak, which means cut-through channel in Cup'ik, is named after. But funerals forced the trip to be called off.   

"So the principal told me for Culture Week you'll tear down the sod house and that will be your Culture Week project," Ulroan said.

Ulroan said the principal told him that the school's new cultural coordinator, James Ayuluk, had picked out what was needed, and that Pingayak had not responded to requests to remove the items. When the items were loaded onto his truck, Ulroan didn't look closely at them because they were moldy.

"I was put in an uncomfortable position and I sure do regret having done that," said Ulroan, adding that he won't be running for office in October. That's primarily because he met his goal of getting the city out of debt, but also in part because of stressful situations like this one.

Atchak, now in his late 40s, posted pictures on his Facebook page of a heap of items at the dump, including transcripts of interviews with elders, old videotapes of traditional dancing, and black-and-white photos.

"Some things are ruined, some are burned. Even a pencil drawing of my grandfather was ruined. (That’s) Joe Friday, the very person who was the foundation of the Cup'ik culture growing up," said Atchak.

'Those are some of our forefathers'

Other notable items tossed include a seal-skin face on a bed of woven grass, a gift from an elder, and a seal-skin blanket once used for blanket-toss celebrations. A large carving of a beluga was given to Pingayak by a priest, after an elder in the 1950s made it, Pingayak said.

Pingayak said he'd never been told to remove the items, though he knew the school was hoping to relocate the sod house. 

"But they were not definite and no one was doing it," he said. 

Then they all of a sudden took a more drastic step and tore down the house, he said.   

Ayuluk, the current cultural instructor and the village's tribal chief, said he wasn't in the village when the items were tossed in the dump, but was in Anchorage to be with his wife, who is receiving cancer treatment. 

"If I was there, this never would have happened," he said, noting that one of the discarded items, the ink-on-skin drawing, was his own work from the 1980s, when he worked at the school under Pingayak. 

Ayuluk said he wouldn't trash his own art or any of the other "treasures." "Those are some of our forefathers, and I wouldn't dare throw them away," he said. 

Ayuluk said he had picked through the items in the sod house in spring of this year. He said he had planned to dissemble and rebuild the sod house somewhere else, piece by piece. 

Some items had been damaged after snow and rain had fallen through a hole in the roof where a plexiglass window had broken. But most of the things, including all the masks, carvings, traditional dance fans and all the other artifacts were moved to a safe corner of the sod house until Pingayak could retrieve them, Ayuluk said.

Ayuluk said he never expected the sod house would be torn down, and everything in it pitched out.

"My friend called me (in Anchorage) and told me they were chain-sawing the place down," said Ayuluk. "It is in a way tragedy, but I would say this: Nothing should have been thrown away in the first place."  

Atchak said he and others plan to put the salvaged items on display, perhaps at the store, where everyone visits. He also plans to ask for the resignation of principal Matt Good and superintendent Larry Parker, who started his second year of school in Chevak after retiring in Nebraska. 

Parker said he was sorry the stuff had been thrown away. But he added that the school can't be responsible for others' belongings, and that the sod house was a potential liability.

Unapologetic school board members should also step down, Atchak said.

"If they don’t resign when we ask, then a recall is the next step," Atchak said. "We can't let anyone who thinks like that be in any kind of position like this, where our children and our culture are involved."

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com