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Rural Alaska

Play-by-play in Cup’ik: A small Western Alaska radio station broadcasts state basketball action in its region’s Native language

  • Author: Marc Lester
  • Updated: April 2
  • Published April 2
Steven Stone Sr. calls the play-by-play as the Hooper Bay girls basketball team faces Glennallen in the second round of the 2A state basketball championship on April 2, 2021, at Palmer High School. (Marc Lester / ADN)

WASILLA — Like basketball announcers across the country each spring, Steven Stone Sr. concentrated to keep up with a flurry of postseason action on the court. But from the balcony of a Wasilla gym Thursday, Stone called plays unlike any other broadcaster. He called the game in Cup’ik.

That adds an additional challenge to his work at the state championship tournaments for small Alaska schools, he said.

“It’s sometimes kind of difficult, because sometimes play-by-play is pretty fast ...” Stone said. “Sometimes our words are a little long.”

This week, Stone is covering basketball teams from Chevak, Hooper Bay and Scammon Bay for KCUK, a radio station based in Chevak. Cup’ik — pronounced like “choo-pick” — is a dialect of the Central Yup’ik language that’s specific to those Western Alaska villages.

At Wasilla High School on Thursday, Stone worked with the station’s general manager, Peter Tuluk, to carry on a mission Tuluk began 35 years ago.

“We want to keep our language alive,” said Tuluk, 71. “There’s a lot of Cup’ik and Yup’ik speakers out there that enjoy when we’re describing the ballgames in our language. It’s more enjoyable listening to it than in English.”

Tuluk, who lives in Chevak, a village of about 1,000 people, said KCUK radio has an educational and cultural mission. The station is licensed by the Kashunamiut School District in Chevak. Students often get involved in its programming.

Including basketball helps bridge a generational divide and delights hoops-hungry friends and family back home, Tuluk said. That’s important now as COVID-19 complicates travel, but it’s been like that since he began doing the Cup’ik broadcasts in 1986, he said.

“Everybody was listening,” he said of the early days. “Everybody was glued to the radio because there was no cellphone.”

Chevak huddles together before the opening tipoff. (Marc Lester / ADN)
KCUK station manager Peter Tuluk, second from left, talks with other broadcasters from Unalakleet at Wasilla High School. Tuluk has been broadcasting basketball coverage in Cup'ik for 35 years. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Stone, 59, from Hooper Bay, population around 1,100, has been calling games for about 20 years. His play calls lean heavily on Cup’ik mixed with some Yup’ik and English, he said. When he’s not traveling to games and regional tournaments in Chevak and Scammon Bay, he teaches culture classes at Hooper Bay School. That includes carving figurines and making traditional tools like ulus and harpoons, skills he learned from his father.

Tuluk and Stone said basketball is one more tool for passing on culture to the next generation, he said.

“Most of them don’t even know how to speak or understand our Yup’ik way of speaking, so this is part of the learning for them,” Stone said.

“The Cup’ik and Yup’ik language is part of our lifestyle and our livelihood. Our language also connects us to our land and animals and birds and things like that,” Tuluk said. “And the kids, when they know and learn about our language, they understand English better. If they’re fluent in our language, they’re good in other languages too.”

“When I was in school I didn’t know a word of English,” he said.

Tuluk said he hopes to expand his station’s reach to Nelson Island and Toksook Bay this year. Bethel-based KYUK also sometimes carries his broadcasts, he said. They call more than 20 regular season games each season, they said.

Chevak's Anya Pingayak, left, and Krissy Imgalrea adjust their masks during the first round of the 2A state championship tournament. (Marc Lester / ADN)
Chevak girls head coach Priscilla Matchian talks to her team. (Marc Lester / ADN)

On Thursday, Stone described the action as the girls from Chevak convincingly beat Tok, 59-34, in the opening round of the 2A tournament at Wasilla High School. Afterward, Chevak’s coaches, wearing matching red Comets kuspuks, said they appreciated the KCUK crew’s Cup’ik calls for people who couldn’t cheer in person. It’s a long and expensive trip even in non-pandemic times, they said.

Head coach Priscilla Matchian said she’s a Cup’ik speaker and tries to include some of the words in her coaching. The kids are interested in their Native language, the coaches said.

“It helps to keep their identity, because we’re the only Cup’ik people in the whole world,” said assistant coach Mary Ulroan.

Stone packed up his equipment after the Chevak game, but didn’t rest for long. His hometown Hooper Bay girls team would take the floor later that day and he’d be back to call the action. He braced himself for long days ahead as the 2A tournament continues through Saturday.

“Too much talking,” he said with a smile.