Look to the past, act in the present and plan for the future

Posted: Friday, March 28, 2003

Just a few weeks ago, Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School students hosted a Ku.eex, or potlatch, as a culminating event after a semester study of one of the most divisive issues in Alaska today: Alaska Native subsistence rights.

Thanks to generous donations from the Douglas Island Indian Association and Tlingit and Haida Association, we served a variety of Southeast Alaska fare to more than 250 people that day: 200 pounds of king salmon, 100 pounds of halibut, 35 pounds of crab, 35 pounds of prawns, and an array of potluck dishes prepared by parents and friends.

The food prepared by students and parent volunteers was delicious, but the real focus of the event was to celebrate and share our students' work with an audience of policymakers and stakeholders in the subsistence debate. Our guest list was formed with this purpose in mind; many elected officials and community leaders graciously accepted our invitation, and Juneau's Alaska Native community honored us with their attendance.

Guests were greeted by students and given an embroidered bandana as a gift and escorted to their seats. Students offered guests an overflowing plate of food and attended to their every need. To the best of our collective knowledge, we strove to follow traditional Tlingit protocol for an event of this nature.

After Principal Les Morse introduced the distinguished guests, the Ku.eek ceremonies began. The Dzantik'i Heeni dancers performed; lead singer and drummer, Cassandra Jerue, mesmerized the crowd with her vibrant voice, and the pride with which the group performed was evident.

Following the singing and dancing, a blanket dedication ceremony was performed. Home economics students presented a wolverine felt blanket, 20-by-30 feet, to the audience. Mr. Morse then accepted the blanket on behalf of Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School. The wolverine blanket will be displayed permanently in the school commons area so that many people will have a chance to appreciate this beautiful piece of artwork.

Next came the adoption ceremony. Dzantik'i Heeni cultural heritage educator Greg Brown adopted three Dzantik'i Heeni teachers: Jodie Buck, Steve Morley and myself, into the Teikweidi tribe. To be adopted by the Tlingit, the people of the tides, was truly an honor for all of us.

When the ceremonies concluded, our guests were invited to view the students' work and ask questions of students attending their project displays. A very popular display was the Juneau community survey on subsistence.

Fourteen color charts reported the results of 650 Juneau residents' responses to our survey. Students' written interpretations of what the graphs said about our research questions were on display. Letters to students from Alaska legislators answering questions, and stating their positions on the subsistence debate formed another portion of the project. One letter in particular drew attention from several guests. It came from Gov. Frank Murkowski. In a reply written to seventh-grader Amy Reid, the governor answered her questions and outlined his position on the rural preference issue. Just a few days before, the governor had barely mentioned the topic of subsistence in his State of the State address. I had to smile when we were dismantling the project displays and Amy asked, "Do I get to keep this letter?"

Last, but certainly not least, I would like to thank the elders who came to our classrooms or joined us on field trips to speak about what subsistence means to them and also about the concept and importance of respect in Tlingit culture. Gunalcheesh: Walter Soboleff, Archie Cavanaugh, Anna Katzeek, Ben Coronell, Emma Marks, Ethel Lund, Florence Sheakley, Frank Miller, Greg Brown, Jim Marks, John Lyman, Judy Brown, Marie Olsen, Mike Turek, Rosa Miller, Sergius Sheakley and Wayne Nicols. Our studies were deeply enriched by their knowledge and wisdom of subsistence and Tlingit culture.

I sincerely believe that partnerships and teamwork guided us to fairly, accurately and thoroughly conduct our study of subsistence issues. The success of the White Bear Project, and Dzantik'i Heeni's first Ku.eex, were truly the result of collective effort. Gunalcheesh to everyone involved!

Mary-Lou Gervais teaches math at Juneau-Douglas High School. This column is intended as a place for teachers to talk to parents, students, one another and the community about education and the good things happening in their classrooms.

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