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Weaving, writing and arithmetic

Students learn by doing in new Native culture classes

Posted: November 18, 2013 - 1:04am
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Cultural arts teacher Victoria Johnson teaches student a Tlingit song at the start of class at Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School on Thursday. The program is being funded by the Goldbelt Heritage Foundation.  Michael Penn | Juneau Empire
Michael Penn | Juneau Empire
Cultural arts teacher Victoria Johnson teaches student a Tlingit song at the start of class at Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School on Thursday. The program is being funded by the Goldbelt Heritage Foundation.

It’s not often a middle school class starts with a song, continues with a lesson on respect and ends with a hands-on weaving workshop. But 13 students at Dzantik’i Heeni Middle School do just that multiple times per week through the school’s new Northwest Coast Art class.

It’s more than just an art class, though, said instructor Victoria Johnson, culture and language specialist for Goldbelt Heritage Foundation, which funds and leads the class through a grant.

“We feel ‘art’ degrades what these objects truly are,” Johnson said before class Thursday. “They put their spirit into the things they make and they give them to others.”

Before the students began their task for the day — completing an intricate Ravenstail weaving that will become a medicine bag — Johnson led them in a Tlingit song, cueing the kids by beating a drum.

“Tsu heidi shugaxtootaan ya yaakoosge daakeit haa jeex’ a nak has kawdik’eet’,” they sang together. Translation: “We will open again this container of wisdom left in our care.”

The words fit perfectly with the class organizers’ goal for teaching Tlingit lessons in a school setting.

“It’s been an opening experience for students to learn the Tlingit way of thinking,” Johnson said. “What we get to share does help them through life skills.”

On Thursday, Johnson gave a short lecture on one of the traditional tribal values: “We are stewards of the air, land and sea.” She told the students that the only way they can continue to harvest the materials they need for weaving — wool and cedar bark — is by treating plants and animals with respect.

Students settled around the room with their weaving projects, chatting with one another and the instructors and twisting strand over strand to create a herringbone pattern. In addition to creating the medicine bags, they each created a unique formline crest to adorn the finished product.

Eighth-grader Mallory Miller said she made a squid design to decorate hers. The drum Johnson used to start the class was another creation of Mallory’s and was also decorated with a formline squid. Learning formline techniques and building drums was a class project earlier in the semester.

“I’m very into squids,” Mallory said. She said the weaving project, which Johnson said is meant to show the students the work that goes into traditional Tlingit regalia, is no walk in the park.

“Your shoulder gets tense and your fingers cramp up,” Mallory said.

Her friend, 12-year-old Alex Wehe, is also taking the class. He decided to decorate his medicine bag with a thunderbird. He signed up for the elective because he likes learning different perspectives on the world, he said. During the opening song, he didn’t need to look at the lyrics — he has them memorized because “it’s a really catchy tune.”

“I figure it’s kind of good to immerse yourself in the culture around you,” Alex said. “I thought it would be good to learn Tlingit culture and other Native culture.”

Principal Molly Yerkes said the course was developed by the school and Goldbelt Heritage Foundation to provide more variety in the offered electives. She hopes the class will be available next school year, as well.

Another Goldbelt-led class, Tlingit Language and Cultural Leadership for sixth graders, is also in its first year at the middle school. Johnson said the organization hopes to continue both classes and expand the program to other schools in the district.

“I think (students are) really enjoying it, being able to communicate and see other perspectives,” she said. “I hope this trend can continue on.”

• Contact reporter Katie Moritz at 523-2294 or at katherine.moritz@juneauempire.com. Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.

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