In the village of Chevak on the Bering Sea Coast, dozens of Cup’iq artifacts, including masks, harpoons and dance regalia, ended up in the village dump. They’d been kept in a traditional sod house that was owned by the Kashunamuit School District, a one-site district. The school had built it in their cultural heritage program to show students the traditional ways of living.
Superintendent Larry Parker says in recent years the sod house had become a safety concern and a liability issue.
“We had at least one student that had fallen through it,” Parker said. “Fell through the roof of it and the police had to come and get him out.”
The sod house was erected on the school’s softball field and when the school tried to relocate it, they found out it had a lot of mold inside. Parker says the school district talked to the tribal council and the city of Chevak but neither one wanted the sod house, so the school decided to trash it and all its contents.
Chevak resident Earl Atchak says he didn’t know that was the fate of what was in the sod house. He helped retrieve some of the objects from the dum, including written stories from elders about being Cup’iq. He says that knowledge is invaluable: They described “How to do anything,” Atchak says. “How to be a Cup’iq. Who are you? Who am I? Where do I come from and where am I going?”
But Parker says the community had notice. Over a year ago, the school principal and new cultural director went through the sod house, removed the school’s belongings and notified a man named John Pingayak of the dilapidated state of the house. Pingayak had retired after being the cultural director for decades and had collected the artifacts over the years.
Pingayak did not want to interview with KYUK because he used to work for the school.
Atchak says even though Pingayak had gathered the artifacts over the years for the cultural program, they belonged to the whole community. To Atchak, it was clear that the artifacts should not have been trashed no matter what the situation. He says they included videos of elders, ivory carvings, books and drawings that are one-of-a-kind and irreplaceable.
He wasn’t able to salvage all the items but did retrieve a written interview with an elder who had passed away.
“There were pages and pages of hand written notes,” Atchak says. If it was ruined and burned, how can we get those things back? Those were historical and those were the very who I am and where I come from.”
School Board member, Ignatius Chayalkun, says that he’s heard only a few complaints from the community about the school’s decision. He says the residents had time to do something about it if they wanted to.
“They had plenty of opportunity to address this, address this matter,” Chayalkun says. “Now, after neglecting all this stuff, totally forgetting about them all this time, they suddenly want to make noise about this whole thing and try to blame the school district for the demise when they themselves should be blamed for this whole thing.”
Superintendent Larry Parker issued a partial apology: “I’m sorry if we destroyed somebody’s property but the school cannot be responsible for abandoned property and we can’t keep something unsafe around.”
Atchak says he’s asking the Alaska Commissioner of Education to come to Chevak to address the issue. He would like to see a community-wide meeting that includes the school board and all residents.