Classes start at Unalaska’s new Head Start facility with a focus on Unangax culture

a bus
A bus at the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association’s Head Start facility in Unalaska. (Sofia Stuart-Rasi/KUCB)

Unalaska’s new Head Start facility opened to children Tuesday, following years of preparation. The federally-funded education program aims to prepare local students under age 5 for primary school, while also passing on Unangax traditions.

Unalaska’s Head Start is run by the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association, a regional, nonprofit tribal organization. According to APIA, the new facility is five times larger than the island’s previous Head Start building, and can currently accommodate about 40 students.

During a grand opening for the new building in late August, dozens of community members gathered to celebrate. It started with a blessing led by Father Jonah Andrew, a Russian Orthodox priest who flew in from Anchorage, followed by a procession from the local church choir.

MaryEllen Fritz, director of APIA’s Department of Family and Community Development, said starting the event with a blessing ceremony is important.

Starting out the right way — the Alaska Native way — to make sure that our building is set up in a place where we honor our Creator and we put God’s protection upon our children and families as part of our culture,” Fritz said.

Russian Orthodoxy plays an active role in everyday life in Unalaska. Dozens of locals gather regularly for services, like the annual starring celebration for Russian Orthodox Christmas.

Unalaska’s Church of the Holy Ascension is the oldest cruciform-style Russian Orthodox church in North America. Services are conducted in three languages, including Unangam Tunuu, the language of the Unangax people.

Fritz said bringing Unangax culture into Head Start’s education on the island will help with generational healing.

We’re making sure we’re restoring the Unangax language, making sure the children hear the songs and the sounds of the language,” Fritz said, “and putting a foundation in place to start rebuilding community-wide knowledge of the language that was lost many years ago.”

The new Head Start building is dedicated to the late Maria Turnpaugh, who was known for preserving and sharing Unangan traditions with children. During Turnpaugh’s life, her family and her community were forced to evacuate Unalaska and were sent to camps in Southeast Alaska by the U.S. government. Her funeral services were held at Unalaska’s Russian Orthodox Church in 2012.

Fritz said it’s important to thank elders that helped pave the way so that today’s Unangax̂ children can hear and learn about their culture.

Marie Schliebe, Head Start’s lead teacher, said while educators give children a preschool education, they’re also teaching Unangax traditions, like showing kids how to cut a fish and use plants for healing.

So, the whole culture of this island — what we live for, like picking berries and teaching [children] — I really enjoy that aspect of our culture,” Schliebe said.

As the grand opening drew to a close, Iluulux Axanaan, Unalaska’s Unangax dance group, performed a traditional dance inspired by Father Michael Lestenkof, an Orthodox priest from St. George in the Pribilof Islands.

There are currently 18 students, aged three to five, enrolled in APIA’s Head Start program. Fritz said they are currently writing a proposal to serve infants and toddlers in the near future.

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