Inupiaq school rallies support for Yup’ik sister school

Jennifer Howarth (left) and Ida Aanataiyaaq Biesemeier (right) at the Kotzebue bake sale, raising money for Bethel’s Ayaprun school. (Photo by Molly Sheldon)
Jennifer Howarth (left) and Ida Aanataiyaaq Biesemeier (right) at the Kotzebue bake sale, raising money for Bethel’s Ayaprun school. (Photo by Molly Sheldon)

When the Nikaitchuat Ilisagviat Inupiaq immersion school opened in Kotzebue, its founders turned to Bethel’s Ayaprun Elitnaurvik Yup’ik immersion school for guidance. With Ayaprun’s building destroyed earlier this month in a fire, its Inupiaq sister school is stepping in to offer support.

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Images of the fire flashed across TV screens statewide. Wanda Nauyaq Baltazar and her 15-year-old son were watching the news of the devastation at their home in Kotzebue when her son, Anaullaqtaq, turned to his mother.

“He said, ‘Mom, we should do something.’ ‘Sure, son, what would you like to do?’ ‘Let’s do a bake sale, raise money, and send it to the kids there,’” Nauyaq said.

Nauyaq sprang into action, calling and emailing former Nikaitchuat teachers, alumni and parents. Nauyaq is a former Nikaitchuat teacher herself and all three of her children, including Anaullaqtaq, graduated from the Inupiaq school.

After rallying community members, Nauyaq turned to Nikaitchuat.

“I asked them if they wanted to participate, and we could do it together as a way of showing solidarity from one immersion school to another.”

Janine Saito, Nikaitchuat’s director, agreed. Saito says Nikaitchuat is the only Inupiaq immersion school in the country, and its founders modeled the program after Ayaprun when the Inupiaq school opened 18 years ago.

Nauyaq’s oldest child graduated in Nikaitchuat’s first class, and Nauyaq says she remembers meeting with Ayaprun teachers and directors when Nikaitchuat was first beginning.

“We have so much in common when it comes to pushing for the strength of the language,” Nauyaq said. “And there’s so much passion involved in keeping the language alive wherever you are.”

Fueled by this shared mission, the bake sale set up inside the Kotzebue post office lobby on Friday and raised over $1,000 for Ayaprun.

Community members, many of them connected with Nikaitchuat, made breads, soups, pies, and cakes. Nikaitchuat students baked cookies. Retired preschool teacher Ida Aana Taiyaaq Biesemeier ran the booth for the day.

“She’s almost 80, but she sat at the desk and recruited. And she said people were so giving that they would just give $20, $30, whatever they had in their pocket just to donate,” Nauyaq said.

Saito says when she arrived to help clean up, everything had sold out.

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Anna Rose MacArthur is a reporter at KYUK in Bethel.