Gambell, Alaska

Gambell’s two teams just after winning two national championships in academics

They proudly called themselves “The Kids from Nowhere.” They were students from Gambell, Alaska, a Siberian-Yupik (Eskimo) whaling village about 30 miles from Siberia. The village is on blizzard-swept St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea.


The people get a lot of their food from the land. They are excellent environmentalists. They understand nature as part of their way of life. They hunt birds, seals, walrus, and whales to survive.

Many of the adults are expert carvers of ivory. (It is the world’s only legal ivory and can only be done by an Alaska Native.)

Several of the carvers are world-famous, including the youth on the right. He is now about fifty years old. It can get very, very cold on the island. Temperatures of -40 Fahrenheit are common during winter. Windchills reach -140+.

The cold makes life quite dangerous. Frostbite is not the biggest problem. Hypothermia is. It comes from sweating while hunting or doing other outside work. The sweat freezes and chills the body so much that someone can before sick or even die.   

There are a lot of myths about Native people and Alaska:









Eskimos live in igloos.

Alaska Natives never lived in igloos.  In the old days, they would create homes out of whalebones covered with walrus hide. Then the snow would provide insulation and make them look like “igloos.” The houses were well-insulated; it was hot inside.


Today, St. Lawrence Island Yupiks live in houses that look like something from a housing development in the Lower 48. A few still live in the Old Village. The houses there are made from extra lumber (called “dunnage”) from whaling ships many decades ago.






Eskimos eat whale blubber.

Eskimos do not eat blubber and never did. In the old days, they used it to heat their houses, since it’s mainly oil.  Today, they use oil as do Lower 48 houses – except it is extremely expensive.


Sometimes, St. Lawrence Island Yupiks eat whale skin. It tastes like chewing gum. When they pickle it, it’s truly deli 








Eskimos harvest whales.

That is true.  However, the practice is highly regulated. Whales are not hunted for sport, and the meat is never sold. They hunt whales in order to live.


Before saying anything bad about Eskimos, ask yourself: Do you eat beef? Do you go to MacDonald’s? Do you wear leather belts or leather shoes? Products today often contain parts of animals. The difference between Alaska Natives and people like yourself is that the Natives do their own hunting – and there is no waste.








It is dark in Alaska for six months a year.

That is false. Alaska is huge. If you put one end of it in California, the other end would reach the Atlantic Ocean!


In the part of Alaska that is way up north, the sun does not come up for 84 days (that is, about three months). In most of Alaska, however, there is considerable sunlight even on the shortest day of the year. 


Also, much of Alaska gets hot during summer.  Temperatures in the 80s and 90s are not uncommon.






Eskimos kiss by rubbing noses.

That came about from a misunderstanding by Hollywood.  Eskimos may put their faces close together for warmth.

John Apangalook Memorial High School

The year was 1982. There were 550 people in the village. (Now are now about 650.) The village had no cars or roads. The people used snowmachines (what most people call “snowmobiles”) for transportation. The houses had no plumbing. Only the school and the washeteria had running water. The houses used 33-gallon buckets, which the members of the household filled by hauling water from outside the washeteria.

The high school was named for an elder who constantly told young people the value of education. It had 41 students, grade 9-12. The students had no computers, almost no books, and little knowledge of the world beyond their island. Most had low reading and writing scores. All but two spoke English as a second language. Many had never been off the island, and if they had left, it was usually only to go to another village for basketball games or the wrestling tournament.

Previous educators had labeled them “uneducable.” 
The school was so troubled it was under threat of closure.

Despite the problems, the students entered one of the nation’s most difficult academic competitions. It combined reading, writing, problem-solving, and verbal skills in a timed event.

A new teacher inspired them to win the state competition.

The older part of the village

They wanted to become the first Native Amer-ican team to win an Alaska state championship in academics.

They had to compete against gifted students around the state in subjects such as genetic engineering and nuclear waste disposal – subjects the Eskimo students had never heard of before.

The newer part of the village

Difficulties plagued them. A fire burned up all the village oil the day of the first test, so they had to take the exam in coats under tiny emergency lights. A parent drowned while ice fishing.

Besides attending school, the team members had to provide for their families. They had to study while hauling water, while cutting up walrus meat, and once – the week before the state finals – while in the skin boats, hunting whales.

Some teachers tried to stop them. They said Eskimo students, especially those from a remote village, could not compete with city kids. They said competing would hurt the Native kids’ feelings. Some school district personnel also tried to stop them, cutting funding at the last minute.

The finals were in Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city. At first, the village students were overwhelmed. None had ridden on an escalator or in an elevator. Most had never stayed in a hotel. Some had never been off the island. 

The Gambell students prevailed.

But they did not just win the state championship.

They became the only team of Native American students ever to win a national academic championship. And they did it – twice.


How? They used GWS – the program you will learn in this textbook.

It was created in Alaska. It is the result of 40 years of testing and refinement

Task 1.1


Answer the following questions:


  1. Did the students achieve their goal of winning the state championship?
  2. How many students were in the high school?
  3. What academic program did the students enter?
  4. What are three educational problems the students had?
  5. What did the students do academically that made them truly special?
  6. What kinds of computers did the students have?
  7. What kinds of subjects did the program involve?
  8. What was the name of the village?
  9. What year did GWS start?
  10. Where is the village located?

Task 1.2


Divide into small groups (or work this by yourself). Answer the following questions. Write in complete sentences.


  1. What are five ways their culture differs from yours?
  2. What do you think are three ways their lifestyle helped them achieve their educational goal? Explain your answers.