Camp immerses youths in traditional culture

Students who participate in Goldbelt Heritage Foundation’s Aan Yátx’u Sáani Deíyí: Path to Excellence summer academy for high school students will find themselves learning the story of Kaax’achgóok, as well as the math, science and language surrounding it.


“The theme of the camp centers around a narrative, a historical narrative — a tremendous adventure that took place hundreds of years ago,” said GHF curriculum writer Paul Berg. “Examining the narrative involves the mathematics of nautical vessels, particularly the Tlingit canoe, geology and astronomy, but the core is the language.”

The day camp, aimed at incoming freshmen to outgoing seniors, is in partnership with the University of Alaska Southeast School of Education and the Juneau School District. The program is in its fifth year and offers a half-credit toward high school and four university credits. Each year, there is a different theme for the college-level course; this year, the class is Haa Yoo X’atangi, Haa Kusteeyix sitee: Our Language is Our Culture.

“The course encourages students to take into consideration the dynamic landscape of Southeast Alaska as they develop an understanding of the interconnectedness of nature, respect for Haa Aani (our land), science methodology, Tlingit migration and language, and social roles and responsibilities,” reads a press release for the summer academies. There will be camps for middle and elementary school students as well.

The high school camp will be held from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. July 7-18 at the UAS campus, with optional evening activities.

“We want to help the high school students view this beautiful place they live in and learn more about it, not only in an educational way, but also in a traditional way of how our ancestors saw this place,” said GHF cultural specialist Lyle James.

Students will learn about geography and geology, astronomy, math, Tlingit language and more — and they will be able to connect everything to the heritage and history of the land.

The method of learning and teaching will differ from Western styles of education, GHF Tlingit language and cultural specialist Marsha Hotch explained. In public schools, she said, “You’re going to do math, that’s it. History, that’s what you’re going to get. I think here, it makes it all connect.”

“I can’t take it apart, I know I can’t,” she said. “With that story brings in the clan, the land and the history.”

The focus on Tlingit culture and history shouldn’t be a deterrent to those whose families don’t hail from the land of the Aak’w khan and T’aakhú clans. GHF Tlingit language and cultural specialist Victoria Johnson said there are students who participate in the programs from different cultural backgrounds and from the Lower 48, Whitehorse and Hawaii.

The program’s organizers and instructors believe there is a lot to be learned from Tlingit culture.

Beyond language, math, science and history, students will learn to respect and care for their elders — and elders will find plenty they can learn from the youths. Hotch said students could learn about representing more than themselves from the intricate Tlingit society and protocols.

“One of the things that we learn growing up, ... you don’t just represent yourself,” Hotch said. “You represent your family, your clan, and now modern-day students realize they represent (their) school.”

Another perk of the educational summer camp is the bonds students can build with fellow classmates, as well as students outside of Juneau and Southeast Alaska.

“Incoming ninth graders will have upper-class friends that they can go to if they’re having trouble or difficulties,” Johnson said. “It helps students be more successful in high school.”

Students will be actively participating in preserving Tlingit language and culture. They will participate in “mini immersions” throughout the camp, speaking and hearing only Tlingit for almost two hours. They’ll be encouraged to apply what they learn throughout the day, which will include conversational Tlingit.

The students will get an opportunity to learn from and speak with three of the 82 remaining elders who learned Tlingit as their first language.

“We’re hoping to spark an interest in kids this age,” Hotch said. “They would be able to learn, and if they do want to go on, that would encourage us as language instructors to take a good look at providing the environment so language learning can take place at different levels.”

Johnson mentioned the language requirements of most schools and universities, and said she hopes languages like Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian will count toward college credits. The passage of a bill recognizing Alaska Native languages as official languages in the state of Alaska has people at Goldbelt hopeful.

“Hopefully they can get their diplomas by learning our languages as well,” Johnson said.

About 20 openings are left for the July camp for high school students. Students may apply through June 30 by visiting or visiting the Goldbelt Heritage Foundation office on Hospital Drive. The camp is free to participants, with tuition covered by the Goldbelt Heritage Foundation. The middle school camp will be held in late July and the elementary school dates are yet to be announced. For more information, contact Lyle James at 790-1423 or at

• Melissa Griffiths can be reached at 523-2272 or at


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