Distance culture camp creates new opportunities for Bristol Bay kids to learn hands-on

Aug 4, 2020

For kids in Bristol Bay, summer is a time to explore, fish and hang out with friends. The pandemic has changed summer activities for everyone. But Dillingham’s annual culture camps went ahead — with a few adjustments, and a few unexpected benefits have come out of a tough situation. 

Adeline Mayer, 6, and her older brother, Clarence, 9, showing off rocks they painted during Culture Camp. June 2020.
Credit Izzy Ross/KDLG

Summers are usually busy for Clarence Mayer, 9, and his six-year-old sister, Adeline.

“I’ve been picking flowers, and we’ve been eating slushies and ice cream,” says Adeline.

They live in Anchorage during the school year, but their parents are from Dillingham, so that’s where the family spends the summer.

"Usually going out fishing with our parents," Clarence says. “This summer is different because of COVID. Because we can’t go to the playgrounds, mostly."

Adeline Mayor, 6, and her brother Clarence, 9, showing their story knives. June 2020.
Credit Courtesy of Bristol Bay 4-H.

Another difference is culture camp. The camps are usually half-day programs for groups of kids. They include activities like making dance fans and Yuraq, Yup’ik dancing and singing.

“The volunteers and the leaders love culture camp. We love interacting with the kids. We love sharing knowledge and hearing the stories. And then COVID happened," says Deanna Baier.

Baier coordinates Bristol Bay’s culture camps for 4-H, and is also the Bristol Bay Native Association’s ICWA worker for the Curyung Tribal Council.

“We had a meeting with the leaders and volunteers. And we were trying to figure out how we were going to make this happen with all the mandates from the different agencies, from the communities,” she says.

Instead of having kids attend camp, they decided to do something different — sending activities to the kids. Volunteers and organizers put together kits each week. Parents in Dillingham pick up materials for four to eight different projects — they include things like markers, scissors, glue, and instructions. The kids complete the activities under adult supervision.

The changes also opened up unexpected possibilities. In a normal year, Baier says, she can only organize camps in two or three communities.  She says this new model extends the camps’ reach.

“Since we started putting these kits together, we’ve made contact with several different villages in the region, who are interested in receiving these kits," she says. "And so we are sending them out — out into the region for kids to stay connected with their communities and their culture and still have the opportunity to be involved.”

Around 40 kids in Dillingham signed up for the two distance sessions, which ran for three weeks in June and three weeks in July. So far, more than 40 kids from three villages have expressed interest in participating. They sent out 18 kits to teenagers, and 25 to elementary school kids. They’re currently working with Naknek, one of the communities in the Bristol Bay Borough, to provide kits for preschoolers. The village culture camp program will be ongoing this year, run by 4-H in partnership with the Bristol Bay Campus.

One of the activities Adeline and Clarence completed was a rock painting project.

"It’s a rainbow rock," Adeline explains, holding a paint-striped rock in both hands. "Blue, pink, green, dark blue, dark green, brown, green, and pink and yellow. And all around it is just blue."

"Mine is with sunshine and beach and grass, and then when you flip it over, it’s the ocean with sand. Just sand," Clarence describes. 

Whitney and Averie Brown, eight-year-old twins, also participated in this summer's culture camp. 

Whitney and Averie Brown wear masks they made during Culture Camp. June 2020.
Credit Courtesy of Cara Brown

“I think my favorite activity was doing the masks. It says my name on it, and we got to decorate it with this puffy pink and stuff," Whitney says.

Like students across the state, the Brown twins had to finish up the school year at home, and they couldn’t see their friends. Some things this summer haven’t changed, they say.

“We’re going to go fishing with my dad tomorrow and we’re going to see if we can catch a few fish," Whitney says.

While kids like Averie and Whitney might not be taking group trips outside during culture camp, the kits still tie in summer activities like fishing. Whitney says one includes a worksheet where they learn about salmon.

“They have a life cycle, and the fish, they like, go to a river, and lay their eggs, and then once the eggs hatch they swim out in the open, and then they come back to lay their eggs,” she explains.

Of course, this summer is different for them as well. Whitney says the kits aren’t the same as gathering with a group of friends.

Averie and Whitney Brown. June 2020.
Credit Courtesy of Bristol Bay 4-H

“It feels a little different cause you’re not all around these kids and you’re not really playing games and doing the Yup’ik dances and stuff," Whitney says. 

Averie says she doesn't mind the changes.

"I feel kinda happy not going to school but I still gotta do a little work, and I’ve been focused on keeping my room clean a lot and going outside, doing a lot of things outside,” she says.

Still, keeping busy doesn’t replace friends. 

“We got our own fishing poles, and we were taught how to cast, reel it in," she adds. "But we still miss our friends, though.”

To sign up youth, or to find out more about the culture camp kits, email debaier@alaska.edu.

Contact the author at isabelle@kdlg.org or 907-842-2200.