Students drum up interest in history

One class of Gastineau Elementary School students is in the process of making deer hide drums as part of a multi-disciplined history lesson.


Fourth- and fifth-grade teacher Shgen George started the drum project in January, asking hunters for hides in September and October. George stored the hides in her freezer at home until she had enough for each of her 22 students to make a drum.

They had been plucking, scraping, stringing, stretching and drying the hides, about one per week.

“I’m doing fifth-grade social studies this year and that is American history,” she said. “One of the things I noticed going through the curriculum, every culture and every part of history uses song to record their history. What better way to connect history than through music. I thought, what a great hands-on activity to make history not as boring as it could be. If we use music and songs it really comes alive. The kids have become really interested in the music and the stories behind the music.”

For example, they have started to learn about the Revolutionary War and Civil War and how music was used during those time periods and on the battlefield.

“The drum is how the soldiers would know the orders,” said student Brianna Frisey, adding people also would sing songs “to mourn, to be happy or just to sing. ... I think it’s really cool and interesting because it stands for music, writing, reading and art for just all of the drums and it’s really cool how we did the process. She pulled people from different spots in the day to pluck and scrape. It’s been really awesome just trying to figure out how to make the drums.”

Frisey’s favorite part in the process has been stringing the hides to dry, because that’s been the role she’s helped out with the most.

George said the students will compose their own songs that tell a tale about their personal history — their heritage, family and other things that identify the student.

“We’re also doing Northwest Coast design work so they can paint them,” George said. “They’re thinking of things that are representative of themselves so they can paint the drums.”

On Wednesday, students were still doing multiple steps in the process of making drums. Two students, Alejandra Paniagua-Willis and Dakota Cross went outside with cultural specialist Mary Folletti. They pulled a deer hide that was being soaked in lye from a plastic container and set in the snow. With big rubber gloves on they began to try and pluck the fur from the hide.

“The more stinky it is, the easier it comes off,” Cross said.

The lye helps with the “rotting” process, Folletti said.

Other students paired up to make more drums, taking a soaked and cleaned circle of deer hide and placing it on a circular wooden frame. They took strips of deer hide to tie the face firmly to the frame and then applied large binder clips to the sides in between the tie holes so the skin would dry on top of the frame.

“We started talking about music and studying lyrics and just saying lyrics are a way to tell history and what instrument do we use?” George said. “What do we do here in Southeast? What is the traditional instrument? When we first brought in the deer hides, we looked at them before they were soaked. We talked about the science that it takes to loosen the fur. It does smell, but they were all very respectful.”

George said it’s been impressive to watch the students, as they will sometimes continue plucking fur from the hides during recess. She said some students from other classes have come up with reactions like “Eww! What are you doing?” George’s students have explained that people shouldn’t say “Eww!” about an animal used as a resource, as it is to be respected, and the other students have responded positively to it.

George said this is the first year she’s added the drum component and the first time she’s done it from fresh deer hides. She said most people will just order kits, which she has done before to make two drums.

George said if she gets to teach fifth-grade again she will continue the drum making.

“It’s been really powerful,” she said.

The drum making is just a portion of the Tlingit learning that goes on at Gastineau. Before working on the drums, the students led a lesson on the calendar. They spoke in Tlingit calling out the months, days, weather and other related items.

Folletti, whose position is currently funded by a Goldbelt Heritage Foundation grant and will likely to be eliminated next year if the district doesn’t fund it, teaches Tlingit to every class, pre-school to fifth grade, once a week.

“Then just bringing in elders and other cultural specialists if a classroom that needs an elder to tell a story that fits in with their curriculum or for field trips and things like that,” Folletti said.

She said George’s class actually takes it further than weekly lessons and has been learning to read the language as well as speaking it.

“She’s a model teacher for place-based education throughout the school district,” Folletti said of George.

Folletti also leads the Gastineau Tlingit Dance group and is one of the primary resources for infusing so much Tlingit and Alaska Native culture into the school, along with Indian Studies teacher Patty McNeil.

“This is the only school in the whole school district that has Tlingit in every classroom,” Folletti said. “It’s been here for six years at least. There are 280 students and 100 are Alaska Native or American Indian.”

Folletti said she is worried about what will happen with cultural immersion and place-based learning should her position no longer be funded.

• Contact reporter Sarah Day at 523-2279 or at


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