Book brings traditions to new pre-K curriculum
Qaqamiiĝux̂ (kha-kha-mee-ghu-xh), a new pre-K book published in 2017 and designed for the littlest students of Alaska's Aleutian and Pribilof Islands, translates to "hunt or fish for food or collect plants; subsistence," in Unangam tunuu, or Aleut, language.
The book aims to introduce children in the 3- to 5-year-old age range, in the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association's Head Start programs, to traditional foods. While nutrition is an important component and requirement of Head Start programs nationwide, this new book's curriculum is the first to incorporate Alaska Native traditions, culture and language when teaching about food and nutrition.
The book's four coauthors Suanne Unger, Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association wellness coordinator; Tracy Stewart, a University of Alaska Anchorage clinical-community psychology Ph.D. student, who also has family heritage ties to the Aleutian Islands region; Moses Dirks, a prominent Elder/mentor from Atka and current Anchorage School District elementary school teacher; and Julia Sargent, previously with APIA's Head Start Program, all collaborated to create a curriculum that would introduce healthy living in a culturally relevant curriculum for the four communities in the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands region.
"I think a lot of times we work at the intervention level, so trying to approach our communities and population to help prevent some of these high prevalence rates was something that I was really passionate about," said Stewart, explaining that American Indian and Alaska Natives experience higher rates of obesity and diabetes in their populations.
Stewart was introduced to APIA through her clinical-community psychology Ph.D. program at UAA, and said that part of what drew her to the organization, and this particular project, was the community-centric value her university program encouraged their students to pursue.
"Through the clinical-community psychology program, there is an emphasis on being local — in terms of thinking about the needs of Alaska — and also the needs of Alaska Natives," Stewart said. "While that is my heritage, being in a program that values that also made me want to do a community practicum working with the Alaska Native population."
The project was made possible by a $40,000 grant from the Notah Begay III Foundation, a nonprofit focused on reducing Native American childhood obesity and Type 2 diabetes. The grant allowed the coauthors to create the curriculum and cover costs like printing, artwork and supplemental program materials. Additionally, the group received $5,000 from the foundation to further develop the association's capacity to produce digital stories.
"We created three digital stories — it was our effort to connect our Elders with our youth," said Stewart. "Moses Dirks had [previously] created a book about subsistence foods in the region, and we used some of those stories from his book. We also had a youth from the region, who was learning Unangam tunuu, and we paired them together to help create and narrate the digital stories."
The book is divided into six units: marine mammals, fish, birds, caribou/reindeer, plants and tidal foods, and was derived from a book Unger had written previously, geared toward older youth and adults. The book and new curriculum provide children with an introduction to each unit, an opportunity to participate in a fun and culturally relevant activity, and a recipe using traditional food, like sea lion meatballs or sea kelp chips.
"Something that I really respect about the project was making it culturally competent—bringing in cultural traditions, as far as subsistence—and the revival of our Unangam tunuu language," said Stewart. "The prevention and cultural pieces were also really rewarding for me."
Both Unger and Stewart said one of the most important aspects of the project, in addition to teaching young children the importance of a healthy, nutritious diet, was to tie the traditional, cultural and Unangam tunuu language to the curriculum. Their Elder/mentor coauthor Dirks played a huge role in providing that vital piece. The two said when they had an idea of an activity for a unit, they would often consult Dirks first for his expertise and he would help tweak their idea to fit the cultural aspect of the book.
"Moses was instrumental in not just providing language inclusion, but also informing the cultural pieces, whether they were the posters or activities we used and how we were to convey that information in the communities," Unger said. "He played an integral role in reviewing things and guiding us through that process."
Stewart gave an example from the fishing unit where she and Unger were designing an activity around fishing and were thinking of using fishing poles. Dirks intervened, explaining that in the Aleutian Islands region, fishing was about community and using a seine net rather than an individual activity and using a fishing pole.
"It was important to promote all the aspects of traditional foods — not just the nutritional benefits — but also going out and procuring the food, cooking with family and the curriculum kind of ties all these activities together," Unger said. The book, she said, encourages children to join family members or other Elder/mentors in the community to learn stories of hunting and gathering, as well as food preparation. "All of these things ultimately contribute to people consuming more traditional foods, which I think is healthier."
In 2016, the Qaqamiiĝux̂ curriculum was piloted in all four Head Start locations in the API Region with much success.
Stewart and Unger said their program has been well-received and they have had a lot of positive feedback from the regional Head Starts in the Aleutian Islands region, as well as across the state. Unger said other Head Start programs in Alaska have reached out to them about implementing a similar program in their region, and teachers have asked for access to their curriculum to share with Unangan/Unangas students they have in their own programs.
What is really exciting for Stewart and Unger is that the four regional APIA Head Starts have implemented their curriculum and are aligning each unit with the annual subsistence calendar.
For Unger and Stewart and their two coauthors, Dirks and Sargent, they have accomplished what they set out to do—create a book that teaches health and nutrition, while being culturally relevant, provide pride in local traditions and help revitalize the Unangam tunuu language.
Unger added that, what is special about the book is that it was specifically designed for the Aleutian Pribilof Island regions giving its Head Start programs a resource pertaining to their traditions, culture and language, instead of having to use a national curriculum.