Glacier Valley students rehearse for Celebration

More than 60 students join school's Native drum and dance club
Over sixty Glacier Valley Elementary School 1st - 5th graders, dressed in regalia, perform during a school assembly on Thursday in preparation for their performances at Celebration 2012.

Glacier Valley Elementary School’s Tlingit drummers and dancers danced to the beat of their own drums when they performed for their classmates and parents as rehearsal for their upcoming performance at Celebration.

More than 50 Glacier Valley students performed Thursday afternoon. The adorable factor was well balanced with respect to detail in the student’s regalia of black, red, white, green and yellow and in the paddles, spears and hand-made drums they used in their performance. Each song had a location and related a story the students learned from program leader and second-grade teacher Hans Chester, who started the program in September. Chester’s Tlingit name is Naakil.aan.

About 50 first- through fifth-grade students show up each week for practice, Chester said.

“We were going to keep it at 25 because we didn’t know what to expect,” Chester said. “But forms just kept coming in and I couldn’t say no.”

Chester said there is a history for each song and a protocol for introducing it. In one dance, Chester explained that a girl, upon becoming a woman, is moved to a separate room in the family’s home. She’s to remain there until married. The girl befriends a meal worm and raises it as her child. Eventually the worm grows so large it destroys the village.

Chester said times have changed for Native Alaskan heritage. He graduated from Juneau-Douglas High School and went on to get his masters degree in teaching at the University of Alaska Southeast. Throughout his college career he studied his native Tlingit language.

“Because they started offering it as a for-credit course that would satisfy requirements for bachelors degrees,” Chester said. “So that is sort of what suckered me in.”

Part of the reason Chester started the club, he said, was to highlight youth at Celebration in Juneau, which runs June 7-9 this year.

“I wanted young kids singing the songs that come from our ancestors,” Chester said.

While there are only about 100 Tlingit speakers remaining, he said when he attended Glacier Valley Elementary not that long ago “I only had one week a year to learn about my culture.”

“The things that we are doing are priceless,” Chester said. “The container of wisdom has been opened.”

The drum and dance program is supported by a grant from the Goldbelt Corp. and help from the Alaska Association of School Boards.

Chester said he sees his program progressing into a normal after-school club just like the other clubs the school offers. Next year he said he would like to start a morning Native language club.

• Contact reporter Russell Stigall at 523-2276 or at russell.stigall@juneauempire.com.

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