Alaska Native high school students immersed themselves in culturally-based education and leadership training on the ancestral territory of the Áak’w Ḵwáan during Sealaska Heritage’s Latseen Art & Leadership academy, held in partnership with Central Council Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska (CCTHITA) and in collaboration with Goldbelt Heritage Foundation.
A total of 30 students participated from many communities, including Angoon, Juneau, Klawock, Metlakatla, Douglas, Auke Bay, Hoonah, Hydaburg, Anchorage, and Washington.
The 11-day academy included cultural activities, traditional games sessions, Northwest Coast art courses in formline design and basketry, and a college success class with the tone and focus set by academy leader Hans Chester on Haa Latseen, strength of body, mind, and spirit through community.
“My favorite part of camp was pretty much everything,” said one student. “College prep, swimming, formline, the music video, basketry, going in the water, and overall this is what made up my favorite part of this camp, learning about my ancestors and culture.”
Learning Northwest Coast art
Tlingit and Haida weaver Deborah Head instructed students in Northwest Coast cedar basketry. Students had the opportunity to study examples of the art form up close at SHI’s William L. Paul, Sr. Archives, design their own patterns, and work with materials through guided instruction.
A student shared about the classroom experience: “She even told stories. I liked that!”
Ronnie Fairbanks, a Craig schoolteacher, shared his knowledge and practice of Northwest Coast formline design through sketching, transferring, and painting. Students learned how to use the basic elements of design and to place shapes and elements together to create their own fairly complex designs. They were able to view items from SHI’s archives to study, sketch, and formalize some of the concepts.
When asked to share a favorite part of the academy, a student said, “Doing formline because my grandpa used to and now he can’t.”
Preparing for success
Teacher Hans Chester led a college success course based in cultural traditions and ways of life around herring as a food source. Yarrow Vaara shared personally collected and prepared herring eggs on seaweed and branches, as well as photos from herring harvesting in Klawock with her family.
Chester and Vaara drew from traditions of strength training in winter waters and led several sessions of “dipping,” with students placing their focus on endurance of mind and body as they self-regulated the duration and depth of their bodies in the waters of Auke Rec.
Will Kronick joined the SHI team through a partnership with CCTHITA, serving as an exceptional chaperone, lead captain of nightly runs, and producer of a student-led media project with volunteer videographer and editor Josh Laboca of Second2None Sounds. Students elected to participate in this project based upon individual interest and learned aspects of video production and directing to create a music video that will be released in the near future.
Traditional games coach Kyle Worl demonstrated various activities seen at events such as the Native Youth Olympics during several sessions held at the University of Alaska Rec Center. Students found encouragement, strength, and success in trying out traditional games, such as the wrist carry and stick pull.
New this year, students were asked to relinquish personal cell phones during the day with a free-time period every evening. The intent was for students to socially interact with their peers, to foster strong community bonds, and to build relationships for collaboration among these future leaders. Participants debated this new policy during the week, with some students embracing the benefits.
“I liked the fact that our phones were taken away. It gave us more opportunity to socialize instead of being locked on our phones,” said one student.
Learning from cultural leaders
In addition to visiting SHI’s collections vault, students gathered in SHI’s clan house to listen to brief remarks from SHI President Rosita Worl, SHI Council of Traditional Scholars Chairman Ken
Grant, and Sealaska Board Chair Joe Nelson. Grant shared the importance of clan connections and Wooch Yáx – the cultural value of maintaining spiritual and social balance. He discussed traditional ways to introduce and interact with family and feel the strength and support of one’s clan ancestors,
“That’s interaction, it binds you together,” he said. “You’ve got relatives, my grandchild sitting over there, it holds you strong.”
Nelson encouraged the students to consider career decisions that would serve their communities, such as getting their Ph.D.s or studying traditional art forms. He also reminded them to bring others along as they move forward, that these connections with one another may serve them in future leadership positions and fighting to preserve Native rights.
“You are not alone in anything you do,” he said, touching upon the cultural value of Haa Shuká – honoring past, present, and future generations in one’s actions.
A highlight for many students was a cultural exchange with Capstone Alaska high school seniors from Punahou School in Honolulu, Hawaii. Appreciations go out to Jesse Cruz with Goldbelt Heritage Foundation, who coordinated with Alannah Collat and Kyle Fujimoto of the Wo International Center of the Punahou School. Students shared cultural song and dance with one another, dancing on both traditional lands and in the clan house. Even SHI president Rosita Worl joined in the hula! Latseen students displayed unity through sharing responsibility as Tlingit and Haida representatives. The beauty of this exchange is the friendships and connections the students are able to make with one another, to see similarities within differences and expand their world view while their place in it comes more clearly into focus.
Presenting final results
Completed art projects were displayed during the Student Art Showcase on the final day of the academy, held in the UAS Egan Library. They shared the beautiful results of not only their art studies, but also leadership and college-ready traits by leading selected songs and dances and providing introductions of their Latseen community groups or “pods.” Eldest students found their inner strength to welcome families to the banquet and to represent balance and tradition through public speaking.
“My Jazzy had a wonderful time and really opened up to other people. She really proved she is a natural born leader and an amazing artist,” said parent Marie Beierly. “This summer has been a pivotal time for her. I was surprised she stood up and spoke to a group of people. That was a real proud momma moment for me and her grandma.”
This program is provided by Sealaska Heritage Institute and funded in part by the U.S. Department of Education ANEP Grant PR# S356A170001. The contents of this program do not necessarily represent the policy of the DOE, and you should not assume endorsement by the Federal Government.
Additional support was provided by Central Council Tlingit and Haida Tribal Family and Youth Services Department, funded by SAMHSA Native Connections Grant.