On Friday evening, January 13, 2023, the Nuniwarmiut School gym was full of lively basketball fans; entire families of lively basketball fans. The aroma of freshly popped popcorn and the sound of basketballs being dribbled filled the air. These fans had come to watch boys basketball as Nightmute, Toksook Bay, Chefornak and Mekoryuk squared off for a weekend of round robin basketball. Any observer would have sensed nothing unique about this scene. These fans knew, however, that this was indeed an historic event.
Mekoryuk is a small village of 200 souls situated about 30 miles off the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, in the Bering Sea. It is the only village on Nunivak Island and home to Nuniwarmiut School. There are about 50 students preK-12 who attend Nuniwarmiut School. The school is developing a Dual Language Enrichment model where the students learn both English and Cup’ig language, culture and traditions. Travel to and from Mekoryuk is difficult and very expensive.
Nuniwarmiut School has a basketball tradition. In 1988, the very first year that Lower Kuskokwim School District hosted the District Tournament in Bethel, the Mekoryuk Herders took first place and went to the state tournament to represent LKSD. They repeated that feat in 1990. The Mekoryuk Lady Herders went to the State Tournament in 1998, 1999 and 2001.
“The students playing on this night were not born yet the last time high school basketball was played in this gym.”
So, what was so historic about this cold January night in Mekoryuk, Alaska? This was the first time since 1998 that two high school basketball teams had met to play in the Nuniwarmiut School Gym. Let that sink in. The students playing on this night were not born yet the last time high school basketball was played in this gym. The students had always been told of the tradition, and yet none of them had ever seen a high school basketball game played in their gym! As the five boys that made up the present-day Mekoryuk Herders took to the floor, that night was truly a joyous and historic event. With the return of basketball to the Mekoryuk community, part of the Nuniwarmiut Spirit was reborn on that night.
High School Athletics provide the opportunity for young men and women to develop very valuable life skills such as collaborating with a team, working together toward a common goal, putting the good of others before one’s own comfort, the value of hard work and being part of something bigger than oneself. These and other life skills translate into quality fathers, mothers and community leaders. The focus of the Herders and Lady Herders basketball team is developing young men and women of integrity and character who will be the future leaders of Mekoryuk. Both Coach Edward Kiokun and the school’s principal state that they are more interested in what kind of men and women these young people will be 20 years from now, than they are in whether they win this weekend. As this rebeginning program develops, the wins will come with great difficulty, but they will come. As this team focuses on the process and on character development, over time the W’s will take care of themselves. Watch for the Herders and Lady Herders, and stick around to see what they become 20 years from now.