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Cultural Celebration Meets Education at Shishmaref’s Inupiaq Days

Adrian Pleasant and Shishmaref School Science Teacher Ken Stenek exchange words at halftime of a semifinal game at the Spring Carnival. Ben Townsend photo.
Adrian Pleasant and Shishmaref School Science Teacher Ken Stenek exchange words at halftime of a semifinal game at the Spring Carnival. Ben Townsend photo.

April 15, 2024

Ben Townsend, News Director

The subtle squeak of sneakers and persistent percussion of bouncing basketballs permeate the halls of Shishmaref School as snowmachines from all over town- and region- lay idle in drifts of snow just outside. Residents, competitors, and visitors are here to take in the fourth night of the Spring Carnival and Inupiaq Days, an annual celebration that has run for over 25 years. 

Seal fur accompanied by colored backing awaits stitching and beading by students from Shishmaref School. Ben Townsend photo.

Every year the village of Shishmaref, home to nearly 600 residents that inhabit a small strip of land just south of the Arctic Circle, bursts into a vibrant celebration hosted by the school. The event, which has evolved significantly over the past 25 years, combines educational activities with cultural appreciation, engaging both young students and the entire community.

Ken Stenek, a high school science teacher at Shishmaref School, has been instrumental in shaping Inupiaq Days into what it is today. According to Stenek, the event initially coincided with a local basketball tournament and included carnival games as well as sled dog races, which oftentimes drew students away from the classroom. 

“Back in the day, students would watch the start of the races and oftentimes they wouldn’t come back. ” Stenek said.

The activities during the school day at Inupiaq Days range from traditional craft-making, such as fishhook creation and sealskin beading, to using modern technology like drones. Stenek emphasizes the importance of these activities, stating, “It’s not just about maintaining tradition but also about how these skills can serve the community today, like using drones for mapping our community.”

Shishmaref School student Landon Turner watches a free throw go into the basket as a member of the opposing team prepares for the rebound. Ben Townsend photo.

Perhaps the most evident sign of the village’s excitement towards the week-long event is the basketball tournament. The games are part of the Spring Carnival that takes place each evening of Inupiaq Days. The tournament has roots going all the way back to the early ’90s where it started as a fundraiser for the basketball team.

Competitors from Deering, Brevig Mission, Nome, Kotzebue, and other nearby communities snowmachined or even flew in to Shishmaref to play on teams with competitors in their teens all the way to their 50s. The games are highly competitive, drawing loud crowds that pack the stands in the gym located conveniently right inside the front doors of Shishmaref School. As the years passed, the focus of Inupiaq Days shifted towards creating educational opportunities that aligned with the students’ cultural heritage and local traditions. The school began coordinating with organizations such as Kawerak, Norton Sound Health Corporation, and the National Park Service.  

“To see the little kids learn about being a Junior Ranger and get a badge or a sticker, or just a simple reward for learning about what the Park Service does, just all these little things. And it’s the light in their eyes and the smiles and the conversations that they’re having with their families at home. That’s everything for me. It’s huge.” Stenek said. 

Stenek remains hopeful that in the future organizations will continue to invest in the community by sending representatives to give the students experiences “outside of a textbook.”

“We can’t thank the organizations like the Park Service and Norton Sound Health and Kawerak enough.” Stenek said. “If the supervisors could see the kids’ engagement and the kids’ excitement after, they would know how much that investment financially of sending people out, what it means to the community and what it means to the kids.”

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