Alaska City, Village Kids Trade Places

The Associated Press
Wednesday, May 23, 2007; 2:53 PM

PALMER, Alaska -- The four students peered at the rows of butter in the refrigerator case. So many choices, so many prices in this sprawling supermarket, almost 500 miles from their tiny village in western Alaska.

"This one is $3.75," said 13-year-old Aaron Ballot, jotting down the price.

"This one is $2.99 a pound," teacher Peter Beachy pointed out.

"But this is the kind we have at home," said Karstin Hadley, 14. At the village store, the only brand of butter available goes for $4.79.

Another lesson learned about urban life.

The eighth-graders from the Inupiat Eskimo village of Buckland are among dozens of Alaska students participating in a federally funded exchange program that pairs remote schools with their big-city counterparts.

The point is to build understanding between rural and urban Alaskans and teach that cultural differences can be valued as strongly as similarities.

The students and their teachers stay with host families. They visit their sister schools, work on educational projects and go on field trips that apply to classroom topics ranging from health care and transportation to subsistence foods and economy.

"Instead of reading about them in a book, they get to experience these issues first hand," said Panu Lucier, director of the program. "For example, they're learning about subsistence, how it's handled in rural and urban areas and what it means to the local people."

The Buckland students visited Mirror Lake Middle School in the Anchorage suburb of Chugiak this month. The previous week a group from Mirror Lake traveled north to Buckland _ population 418 _ a treeless community built on tundra just below the Arctic Circle. Students from both schools documented the visits with photos and audio recordings to share with classmates back home.

Thirty schools from across the state participated this year in the Rose Urban Rural Exchange, now in its seventh year. The program is administered by the nonprofit Alaska Humanities Forum.

Competition for five positions was intense among the Mirror Lake participants. About 25 students who wanted the role turned in essays, saying why they should be chosen to go to Buckland.

The Buckland students toured a musk ox farm, the state crime lab, a local landfill, a vocational training center and the University of Alaska Anchorage. They ate Big Macs, splashed around at an indoor water park and compared grocery prices at a supermarket in Palmer, just north of Anchorage.

The teenagers were amazed at the vast choices and lower prices of everyday goods, particularly gasoline, which costs $6 a gallon in the village.

They noted the hugeness of the malls, the stores and multiplexes, where Ballot watched "Spider-Man 3" with his host family. It was only his second time in a theater.

Even the students' sister school, with an enrollment of 680, houses more people than their entire village.

They had fun, but urban life was a bit overwhelming for Hadley. "It's too big for me," she said. "It's too busy here."

In their venture north, the Mirror Lake students were also immersed in an unfamiliar setting. The seventh-graders went ice fishing for sheefish, learned native dancing, made swan sculptures out of caribou antlers and sewed traditional cloth parkas called kuspuks. They learned a body slamming game called buckbuck.

Tilly Cantor said she enjoyed a soup made by her host family, then learned the ingredients included the heart and tongue of caribou.

"It's a different kind of culture, a different way of living," the 13-year-old said of her first visit to a native village.

Just as the rural kids got a jolt from the relative cheapness of supermarket items, Cantor and classmate Heidi O'Hara, 13, were stunned at the cost of food in the village store. A large bag of potato chips goes for $7.15. A dozen eggs cost $4.99.

Other surprises: houses built on stilts as protection against a river prone to overrunning its banks, a 10 p.m. curfew for minors and no indoor plumbing except at the school and in teacher housing.

Homes are typically equipped with 5-gallon plastic pails used as toilets, and the village has a washeteria, which is a combination coin-operated laundry and public shower.

But the girls also saw ways their new friends were much like them. Most people have dogs, and all the teenagers, it seems, have laptop computers. Many families subscribe to Netflix.

By the end of their visit Cantor and O'Hara felt right at home.

"We're thinking of going back this summer," Cantor said.


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