Wearing a felt eagle hat, fifth-grader Tony Khmelev waves his hand across the crowd and says, "Welcome to the home of the eagles. Yak'éi yeey xwasateeni. It's good to see you all. Ch' ak' naax xat sitee. I am Eagle. I am of this clan."
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Khmelev, who plays Eagle, has been learning about Tlingit culture while rehearsing for the play, "Xxch Shaawt, Frog Woman: A Legend of the Kiks.di People," which opens tonight at the Auke Bay Elementary School gym and runs through Thursday. Both performances begin at 6:30 p.m.
In this Tlingit legend, a young boy is taught a harsh lesson after he misuses his clan's sacred Cormorant Hat and acts cruelly to Frog in the forest. Frog Woman reacts by causing a volcano to destroy the boy's village and most of the people. The only survivors are eventually saved by Eagle, who marries one of them and establishes a lasting bond between the village clan and the Eagles.
Khmelev said he didn't know much about Tlingit culture before acting in this play, but has learned he likes it.
Fifth-grader Omar Awad plays the boy who makes Frog Woman angry. He said he's learned that "lots of people were really rude to the Tlingits."
"I think this is a really good play to show the Tlingits and to respect them," Awad said.
The idea to do a produce a Tlingit play is part of Ann Boochever's strategy for broadening student recognition and understanding of ethnic cultures in her school and community. Boochever, the music teacher at the school and director of the play, has collaborated extensively with Tlingit consultants at the Sealaska Heritage Institute so that the language and cultural aspects would be accurate.
"I believe students will have a much deeper understanding and appreciation for these cultures after doing a play like this. Wearing the costumes, doing the music, doing the artwork, speaking the language, singing the traditional songs in their language, it becomes a part of you," she said.
The Juneau School District has mandated that efforts be made to address Alaska Native student success. Experts suggest providing cultural relevance in the curriculum helps to better engage Native students in school.
"We have many students from many cultures and have done plays from the Philippines, Tonga, Mexico and other places, but it's especially rewarding to explore our own local Native culture," Boochever said. "Every kid has to feel valued and important to do their work," she said.
Rosita Worl, president of Sealaska Heritage Institute said she was happy this story was being presented.
"It's wonderful that children in the school district are being exposed to the richness of the cultural diversity within our community," she said. "It begins to show Native values, the relationship between humans and the environment. We have to be mindful of our impact on the environment and have respect for our environment and wildlife. And that is a good lesson to learn."
Worl said she also appreciates that Boochever recognized that the Frog Woman story was cultural property and "did the right thing, getting permission to do this."
"At our school, now, Tlingit culture is cool, it's the thing," said Boochever. "The kids are excited about it and want to be part of it. The Tlingit students are the leaders and they are so proud. They have the spotlight on them and its building the confidence in their own culture they haven't had before. ... The non-Native kids are adopting that culture and are proud to be part of it," she said.
In addition to learning Native songs and dances, students have discussed prejudice, what it is and how it affects people.
"I grew up here, and I was mortified at the way the Native people were treated in my own classroom," Boochever recalled. "There was definitely prejudice then and what we're trying to do is show respect for people from different cultures with different backgrounds. This is my passion. This is why I do these plays," she said.
Kylie Ibias, who plays Frog Woman, said Tlingits "have more culture stuff than most people do. ... Lots of people are Tlingit in Juneau. ... Some people treated them bad and now we're treating them good because we're respecting their culture," she said.
Fifth-grade student Kordell Searles is Tlingit and one of the lead dancers in the play. "It means a lot for me to be in this play. ... This is the first time our school has done a Tlingit play. It is amazing."