Mastering culture one bead and one song at a time

Annual camp for youths focuses on Tlingit-Haida traditions

Posted: Sunday, July 29, 2001

Kymberly Hoyle was obviously enjoying her first time attending Tlingit-Haida Culture Camp.

"I am learning Tlingit words and how to bead. We go on field trips and play all kinds of different games. Today we're going to ride the (Mount Roberts) tram," Hoyle, 11, said as she worked on a beaded clan crest. "I am going to hang it up on my wall," she said of the crest.

Jacob Hotch, 10, who attended the camp last year, agreed. "It's fun," said Hotch, as he speared a black bead off the tabletop with the point of his needle.

Priscilla "Percy" Martin, 64 and born in Sitka, is the camp's sewing and beading instructor.

"You're pretty tough!" exclaimed camper Raphael Soto admiringly when Martin momentarily held a beading needle between her lips. Soto, 10, was working on a raven head crest - red, black and "yellow for the nose."

He may apply it to a headband, he said. He spotted a raven banner hanging from the ceiling and asked Martin how long it would take to bead a whole bird. "Maybe a year," she said quietly. Soto's eyes goggled thinking of all the possibilities of knots and needle threading that would involve.

The 14th annual Tlingit-Haida Culture Camp is being held at the Tlingit and Haida Community Center on Hospital Drive between July 23 and Aug. 3 this year. Coordinator Andy Lee handles squirmy throngs 6 to 14 with aplomb; after all, this is his 35th year of summer camp. A resident of Juneau since 1978, Lee cut his counselor's teeth at a YMCA camp in Ohio.

About 40 campers move from station to station in the gymnasium-size room. Some are working with Martin and teen-age instructor Michael Hutcherson.

"We have structured it so Percy can work one-on-one as much as possible," Lee said. "Her strengths are that she is grandmotherly, and a good instructor. They swarm around her like bees to honey."

Other stations feature the Tlingit language, art, talks from role models, games, songs or dancing. Language instructor Anna Katzeek teaches campers how to count in Tlingit and how to sing the "Tlingit Anthem," Lee said. All stations include lessons in respect for elders and respect for others, he added.

One of the role models visiting the camp is Al McKinley, winner of the spring king salmon derby as well as president of the Alaska Native Brotherhood. Juneau Police Sgt. Ben Coronell also is scheduled to speak about his life, as is a student from the University of Alaska Southeast.

Assistant coordinator for the camp is Ofelia Sheakley, 29, who helps out at every station.

"I am in the beading station a lot because I have been there before," Sheakley said. She also is teaching campers to sing the Tlingit entrance and exit songs traditionally used when dancing. "About three-quarters of the kids don't know them," she said.

Sheakley mastered the songs during a traditional upbringing supplied by her grandmother, Anita Lafferty, and her great-grandmother, Ida Kadashan, both from Hoonah. She is pleased that her daughter, Diamond Harris, 8, is spending this week with her grandmother Beverly Sheakley at fish camp in Craig, learning how to put up sockeye and pick berries.

But for children who lack a fish camp or family mentors, culture camp is beneficial, Sheakley said.

"It's important for them to learn the history of Alaska and the Tlingit people even though they are not all Tlingit kids here," she said.

"I find that when children learn who their grandparents are, they take more pride in who they are and where they come from," said Martin.

A popular new component of the camp this summer is canoeing on Twin Lakes in traditional dugout war canoes, Lee said.

Next year he plans to add a component for 14- to 18-year-olds, an age group that has not been served by the current camp configuration except when it drafts them as aides.

"That component will be more in-depth and cover topics such as Native American history, drugs and alcohol, traditional Tlingit protocol and academic options," he said.

Ann Chandonnet can be reached at

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