By Kaasteen (Katelynn Drake)
Photos by: Carl Tuzroyluke
Sealaska Heritage’s Voices on the Land program was first held in Juneau in 2014, with the goal of improving student literacy skills, as well as increasing Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian language use through the mediums of performing arts and digital storytelling. This educational project was launched in order to address the academic gaps in literacy skills witnessed for Alaska Native students in the Juneau School District. The aim of the program is to offer students the tools they need for academic success and provide enhanced learning opportunities that integrate core Northwest Coast Native values with traditional Indigenous storytelling. Through the program students learn about traditional oral narratives, Indigenous language incorporation, cultural resources, script writing, theater production, and digital storytelling.
In 2019, the program was expanded to also reach schools in Yakutat and Ketchikan. However, recent years have seen the unique hybrid format of in-person and remote students, which has allowed the program to reach Indigenous students from virtually anywhere around the world.
This year, after much anticipation, both from campers and staff, the 2021 Voices on the Land summer camp was held in person at Juneau’s Dzantik’i Héeni Middle School as well as virtually on Zoom. The three-week camp started its first day following the Fourth of July weekend, and included students from Juneau, Anchorage, Sitka, Craig, Hoonah, Angoon, and Washington state.
Students in grades 4-8 were welcomed both in person and virtually by SHI staff as well as by Tlingit Culture, Language and Literacy (TCLL) teacher Seigόot (Jessica Chester). Remote students logged on through Zoom, while in-person students gathered in the spacious common room of the middle school. Through a large projection screen, staff laptops, and a conference camera, students both in and outside of Juneau were able to connect with each other.
Each student was provided with a generous art supply bag, a drawstring backpack, a water bottle, a t-shirt, and an iPad. After the group got logged onto their student accounts, they began their first week of camp by thinking about what a story is and what significance oral narratives have to Native people. They considered the value of Haa Shuká, and how they were honoring our ancestors through storytelling. This began a routine where each day the students would gather in a large group to discuss different cultural values such as Wooch Yáx̱, Haa Aaní, and Haa Latseení. They would then engage with those values through singing, drumming, and games. Campers were also joined by Naakil.aan (Hans Chester), another TCLL teacher and Tlingit artist who told Raven stories.
Following that, students were split into two groups depending on grade (4-6 and 7-8) for afternoon breakout sessions, where they went to a classroom to learn from one of their virtual teachers. Each group participated in both sessions each day. In the “Sagú” classroom, Daaljíni, a Tlingit speaker and storyteller, helped students understand the components of traditional storytelling. She told many Raven stories and had students consider what made an oral narrative compelling to an audience and how they could bring a story to life. In the “At shooḵ” classroom, Vera Starbard, a Tlingit playwright, showed students the basics of theater production and script writing. Both teachers helped students to integrate Tlingit language into their own stories and to have animals as characters. At the end of the day, students came back together to reflect, sing, drum, and share their favorite part of the day.
For the second week, Daaljíni continued to teach the group about storytelling and was joined in part by Lily Hope, Tlingit artist, storyteller, and teacher. Hope demonstrated how students could play with voice to convey different feelings, characters, and emotions in a story. For week two, Ed Littlefield, a Tlingit song composer and educator from Sitka, taught in person. Littlefield played song and theater games with the students that engaged with acting, emotional expression, and, of course, storytelling. The focus of the week was to work together as a group to read script lines and to pay particular attention to language integration and animated expression of voice.
On the last day of the second week, the camp was presented with a COVID exposure, despite safety protocols, so camp was adjusted to fully remote participation for its final week. Staff and campers were prepared for the possibility and did a commendable job of adjusting in order to maintain a safe environment, while still allowing for the enriching collaborative nature of the camp. For the camp’s final week, students were joined on Zoom by Shelley Toon Lindberg, a visual and media artist. Lindberg taught the students about digital storytelling through stop motion animation and helped them to bring their stories to life.
On the final day of camp, students were joined by Elder and storyteller Liana Wallace, who shared stories from the Áak’w Ḵwáan. At the end of the day students were able to take everything that they had learned and share their productions with friends and family in a showcase. Students did a variety of performances including singing, drumming, acting, language sharing, and finally sharing their stop motion animations. It was a heartwarming performance from everyone, and it was particularly touching how encouraging the students were of each other. It was bittersweet to see the end of the camp, as campers expressed how much they were going to miss everyone and how much they couldn’t wait for next year’s session.