Coaching in Shungnak, AK: Where “It’s a We”

7.May.2019 by Hallie Grossman

By Jake Brown

What a privilege it is to be a ski-racer: we train year round for a sport that we love, a sport that is exciting, intimate with nature, technical, and keeps our bodies healthy. When I was in high school, our coach advertised cross-country skiing as “a lifetime sport,” a sport in which you can compete for the rest of your life. For myself, I hope that the structure and work ethic that training for cross-country ski racing instills in me will transfer when my life is centered on something other than being the fastest ski-racer or biathlete I can be. Cross-country skiing is a sport that is worth sharing, and this April I had the privilege of getting to share the sport in rural Alaska.

There are parts of the world where skiing can not only serve as an avenue for athletic or character development, but also play a more functional role in daily life. Think of the Arctic, where snow covers the landscape more often than it doesn’t, where snow-mobiles (known simply as “sno-gos” in the Arctic) pack down the snow-laden village streets, and where success or failure in silently stalking caribou on a hunt can mean a guarantee of food on the table, or not.

Skiku/NANA Nordic is an Alaskan non-profit that sends skiers and coaches to the rural Alaskan villages to teach basic skiing skills for one week each year. “Skiku” is the overarching name for the organization (the name comes from combining the Inupiaq word for ice, siku, and the word ski) while “NANA Nordic” was the original name for the organization before their reach expanded beyond the Northwest Arctic Native Association’s region. This year Skiku had 58 villages on the schedule. Between three and six coaches are sent to each village for one week. While in the village, the coaches take over the phys-ed classes during the day, provide after-school ski programming (usually games and adventure skiing) for kids after school, and offer lessons for community members as well.

This year I had the privilege of coaching with Skiku in the village of Shungnak. Shungnak is located 355 miles inland of the Kotzebue Sound, just southeast of Kobuk Valley National Park and southwest of Gates of the Arctic National Park. Shungnak has about 250 residents, 95% of whom are of Alaska Native heritage. In Shungnak I was joined by two other coaches, Harvard University assistant coach Jeff Tucker and GRP summer athlete Johanna Talihärm (during the week, Jeff received word that he would be joining the Craftsbury coaching staff for the summer!). Although I had served as a coach with Skiku in the past, each village is unique and I knew that Shungnak would be no exception.

Shungnak, Alaska

A week before traveling to the Arctic I called the Shungnak school principle, Roger, to introduce myself and make sure that the village was prepared for their “ski-week.” Roger assured me that he, the village, and the kids were ready. The kids love skiing, he had told me, and they are pretty darn good, too. He talked about previous years, about how the entire village had lined the village streets to watch the race at the end of the week. “Because in Shungnak, It’s a ‘We’,” he had said.

Fast forward to our week in the Arctic, and it didn’t take long for Johanna, Jeff, and I to learn what “It’s a We” was all about. The community made us welcome, having put up welcome signs in the school and providing us with all the resources we need, which made it a joy to share as much as we could about skiing with them. We spent our nights sleeping in the fourth and fifth grade classroom and our days on skis. After morning assembly at 8:55am, we would prep for our classes by organizing gear or setting up an obstacle course, treasure hunt, games, or the race course. When P.E. classes began, we were fortunate that Shungnak’s students were easy to work with. As long as we maintained structure and order, as was the way at Shungnak school, the kids followed along. This allowed the three of us to get all the kids, as many as thirty at a time (and nearly fifty on race day!) set up with equipment and out the door in a matter of minutes.

Bears learning to ski… photo by Debby Tzolov

Every day we took four separate PE classes out for an hour each; ages ranged from pre-kindergarten to seventh grade, and abilities ranged wider.  Each day brought a new theme (which always kept things interesting for both us and the kids): Starting and stopping games, agility course, biathlon, treasure hunt, and racing. After school we took all comers outside to play a game on skis (the most popular being run, caribou, run and capture the flag) or on an adventure ski either down the sno-go trail toward the next town, Kobuk, or through the village streets. Although we had to be on the lookout for stray dogs and speeding sno-gos, I always preferred going into the village, where interested adults would glance up from their work on a sno-go to watch kids ski by, and kids would call out, “look, Dad, watch me slide!” and then proceed to share with you all about their family as we skied along.

Found: a clue while on a treasure hunt
S’mores!
Agility Course!
The first attempts at “pizza pie”… work to be done
Scary Bear!
Laser biathlon!
It’s a showdown! Shungnak’s best vs. Johanna

It’s easy to think that we were the ones giving the kids a special experience. And in a way we did. It was evident when we saw the joy on their faces as they sprinted to the equipment line on the last day, when they zipped down a hill without falling, or when one said “I croak” (translation: I’m exhausted) with satisfaction after he crossed the finish line on race day. But the reality is that they and Shungnak as a whole gave us arguably the more valued experience, one that will change our perspectives on culture, struggle, joy, and what is really important. It’s not just a privilege to pursue ski racing, but it is also a privilege to share it.

Community lesson, photo by Debby Tzolov

Roger was really big on mottos. “It’s a We” was the big one, but there were also “Education comes first” and “Education is a job,” which were emblazoned all over the gym. At first, I thought it was a little overkill. The phrases were everywhere. But by the end of the week, I had bought in. Take “It’s a We,” for example. Roger had come up with the phrase as a school motto, but the words were transcendent. “It’s a We” represented Roger’s mission to increase the sense of community in Shungnak. It was Shungnak’s brand. And they wore it well, both figuratively, and literally. In fact, Roger had officially made the slogan a registered trademark of Shungnak School, and it appears of every article of school clothing, from teachers’ sweatshirts to basketball uniforms. Roger even outfit us ski coaches (as well as other visitors) with our own ‘It’s a We’ paraphernalia, broadcasting the Shungnak identity beyond the Kobuk Valley. But it was clear that the slogan wasn’t about sending an image to outside world, but about uniting Shungnak internally. One of Roger’s biggest goals when he arrived as principle eight years ago was to increase parent involvement in their child’s education, to have parent and student pursue education as a job together. He wanted families to stand up against domestic violence and alcohol abuse, to make Shungnak a safe and healthy environment. He wanted the students to serve their communities, for example fetching stove oil for neighbors or chopping wood for an elder. This is what “It’s a We” stood for.

During our time in Shungnak we heard jaw-dropping stories illustrating Shungnak’s transformation over the last eight years. We only got a glimpse into Shungnak, but we could see the essence of “It’s a We” in something as simple as skiing. For one, the school had bought into the ski program: they not only have established an ongoing system to take the kids skiing throughout the winter but have also purchased two laser biathlon systems, Podiumwear warmup uniforms, and a wax box filled with a brand new Swix T77 iron, waxes, brushes, and a “Swix CeraF” apron. Teachers and community members were also enjoying the sport: we had four adults attend our evening community ski lesson, including a mom who had been convinced by her first and third grade daughters to give it a try. And the biggest sign of support was when we saw the community turn out to watch the race on Friday afternoon. Family members and friends lined up in front of the village store and watched their kids race a challenging 3km in slushy conditions. For me, that alone made it worth it, to see that skiing could contribute to the mission of “It’s a We.”

Principle Roger shows off Shungnak’s Podiumwear warmups in 2018
Beautiful landscape of the NANA region