Riverbend Elementary is celebrating its 20th year, and Goldbelt Heritage Foundation gave the school a gift that both encompasses education and tradition during a celebration Friday.
Goldbelt gifted the school a Tlingit house screen designed by Yakutat artist Daanak’eesh Shane Brown. The screen, titled S’igeidí X’éen, translates to “beaver house screen” and celebrates the school’s mascot, a beaver. The beaver on the screen is holding a book in one hand that quotes Lance Twitchell, University of Alaska Southeast Professor of Alaska Native Languages, and a pencil in the other hand to symbolize education and learning.
“Nothing measures up to our language,” the quote from Twitchell reads. “It will save us. That is why we are going to work together. It was given to us and we are going to give it to them — our little grandchildren.”
Brown, who works as youth leadership mentor at Goldbelt, said he hopes this gives the students something he felt he could not fully embrace growing up in Juneau, which — like much of Alaska — has dealt with discrimination against Alaska Natives.
“I was not always comfortable growing up,” Brown said in an interview prior to the ceremony. “But now there is a more welcoming presence here. (Alaska Native) culture is more socially accepted.”
After the official unveiling, Brown admitted he felt overwhelmed with emotion.
“The kids response when we unveiled it really gave it the life I really feel like it deserves,” he said.
The gifting of the house screen, which will be a permanent fixture in the school, was the first of several events held on Friday for the school’s anniversary. There was also traditional dancing and music by Riverbend’s Indian Studies Program Culture Club and a 20th-year commemoration song written and performed by Juneau Alaska Music Matters (JAMM) students. A potluck dinner at Riverbend was also held Friday evening.
Riverbend Elementary School Principal Michelle Byer said the unveiling and the event meant a lot to the school.
“We have a very high Alaska Native population at the school, but we do not have a high representation of (the culture),” she said. “This is an opportunity for the kids to feel connected and to identify themselves with the culture.”
According to publicschoolreview.com, Riverbend has an enrollment of 63 percent minorities.
Byer added the school wants to feel even more welcoming to all of the students.
“We want this to be their home away from home,” she said. “The representation will fill their hearts and their minds.”
This is the fourth house screen/panel to be gifted through this project, led by Fred White, to support Juneau schools with providing culturally responsive education for youth. The first panel was gifted to Dzantik’i Heeni Middle School, the second to Gastineau Elementary School, and the third to Harborview Elementary. The first three panels were completed by Tlingit artist Delfin Decker.
House screens were historically found in clan houses and depict the family’s heritage.
Brown hopes the art piece is something the students can take with them spiritually inside and outside of school.
“(The house screen) is usually something people only really see it at gatherings,” he said. “So for the kids to see it every day as they walk by, it is something that should help them with self-value and self-worth.”
• Contact reporter Gregory Philson at email@example.com or call at 523-2265. Follow him on Twitter at @GTPhilson.