Culture Week brings indigenous culture into the classroom

Students engage in studying Eyak and Sugcestun languages, Native dance, athletics and foods

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Mt. Eccles Elementary School Principal Gayle Groff believes that place-based education, where studies are tied to the locality, is the way to engage students in learning relevant to them.

Culture Week, as presented to Mt. Eccles students as part of the curriculum Oct. 2 through Oct. 5, brings indigenous experiences, languages, traditional foods and knowledge right into the classrooms, where children learn about the area’s culture firsthand.

“They can relate to their own experiences,” said Groff. “There is such a wealth of knowledge and expertise here in our own community and we’re thrilled to have the kids in our school learn about the history and traditions of Cordova’s indigenous culture from people they know and see around town.”

Sponsored by the Native Village of Eyak, with assistance from the Cordova School District, Chugachmiut and the Eyak Corporation, Culture Week marked its third year as part of the elementary school’s program.

Classes included instruction in Native languages, dance, athletics and crafts.

Students learned about the Eyak and Sugcestun languages, Native dances and songs, and the games of the Native Youth Olympics, including the kneel jump, Eskimo stick pull and two-foot-high kick, Alaskan high kick, one foot high kick, scissor broad jump, arm pull, wrist carry and seal hop. They were also instructed in fish tanning, making fish skin bags, foods gathered from the sea; and crafting masks and dreamcatchers.

“Most of the kids seemed really excited about Culture Week,” said Brooke Johnson, NVE’s cultural director at the Ilanka Cultural Center, and the event’s primary coordinator.

In addition to coordination, planning and troubleshooting, Johnson taught third and fourth graders how to make Native masks.

“It’s important for people to learn more about the Native cultures that live in the Cordova area,” she said. “We are trying to bring different traditional skills classes each year, and different projects for the kids to work on, so we aren’t repeating ourselves year after year. The students like to reflect on some of the subsistence activities that their families do, and have the opportunity to share those with their classmates,” she said.

Johnson said there were a few changes made during Culture Week this year.

“For NYO we were able to bring down Nicole Johnston, who is one of the Native Youth Olympics lead officials, and Autumn Ridley, who is a world record holder in the two-foot-high kick,” she said. “We were able to have demonstrations at both the high school and elementary school.

“During language/dance, we had our local Sugcestun language teacher instruct all of the kids in some of our dances, which all changed from last year, and also play games using the language. With the kindergarten class, we were able to add the preschool class, reaching younger students. The crafts for all of the grades were changed to making dreamcatchers, papier-mâché masks, and sewing pouches with fish skin added to them.”

Johnson said she was amazed to hear third and fourth grade students singing one of their Native songs with no verbal guidance from their instructor, Shyla Olsen.

“I ended up interrupting class by being so excited when they finished. I was so proud of them at that moment,” she said. “It isn’t easy to learn the Native songs, with words and sounds that are unfamiliar (to them).”

The week culminated with an all-school assembly showcasing students’ projects, songs and dances, and NYO demonstrations, followed by a potluck of traditional foods, including seal meat, beebles (salted fish eggs), smoked fish strips, jarred fish, jellies, fry bread, fish dip and fried fish.

Raven Madison, Faith Barnes, Darrel Olsen, Angela Butler, Barclay Kopchak, Jessicca Kennison, Jeff Hamberger, Danaya Hoover, Nick Tiedeman, Nicole Johnston, Shyla Olsen, Lennette Ronnegard, Leona Olsen, Duke Anderson, Mary Babic, Jenny Bailey and Peggy McDaniel provided instruction during the week. NVE Youth Council members Billy Bailey, Ryleigh Jones, Holden Arnold and Hannah Rodolph attended as interns.

Johnson praised the Culture Week volunteers.

“There’s no way this week could happen without each and every one of them,” Johnson said. “I would also like to thank Jessica Weaver, as she prepped every project kit that the students were given. She worked behind the scenes to help make this week a success. I would like to thank all of the teachers for the class time they were able to give us, and all of the help that Gayle Groff and Elizabeth Collins were able to give.”

“Most of the activities are very hands on and active, which makes the learning stick,” Groff said. “I bet that kids will be greeting me in Eyak or Sugcestun for months to come.”