Jamie McDonald considers herself an Alaska Native. But she didn't speak Tlingit and knew little about the culture until she participated in the Latseen Leadership Training at the University of Alaska Southeast.
Between Aug. 3 and Aug. 13, McDonald will learn topics from Tlingit language to Tlingit law to Tlingit history.
"For me, the most important part of the program is to know other kids are in the same situation, just getting started to learn the language and heritage," McDonald, 20, said.
Sealaska Heritage Institute, the cultural arm of Sealaska Corp., is offering the program for the first time. "Latseen" means "strength of mind, body and spirit" in Tlingit. Sealaska Corp. is the regional for-profit Native corporation for Southeast Alaska.
Conceived by Rosita Worl and Marlene Johnson, two Sealaska Corp. directors, the program aims to teach Native students about their history.
"They must know who they are by knowing the land, their clan affiliation and their language," said Barbara Cadiente-Nelson, education department director of Sealaska Heritage Institute.
"We are a people whose language, customs and traditions are in peril because there was a time we were forced to assimilate to Western culture," Cadiente-Nelson said. "That's why there is an urgency to give that knowledge to our children."
The program focuses on three Rs: rigor, relevance and relationship.
"We are group-oriented," said Cadiente-Nelson, who coordinates the training. "We are not I-people."
Native American culture, including some non-Tlingit elements, is incorporated in every aspect of the curriculum.
Students learn algebra and geometry by making armor. Their physical education classes include canoeing, stick games from southwest Yukon Territory, capoeira (a combat dance) from Brazil, and lacrosse from the Great Lakes. Some of the activities are accompanied by dancing and drumming.
"Lacrosse means the gift of creator," Cadiente-Nelson said. "It teaches about life. The gift connects the past with the present through the player's ability to go deep within to draw from their spiritual well to give their all to the game and life."
The classes are taught by a cadre of primarily Alaska Native cultural specialists, high school teachers and directors of Sealaska Corp.
Duain White of Hoonah, 18, said among all the classes, he enjoys Worl's lectures on Tlingit law and history most.
"She is an anthropologist. That's what I want to be," said White, who wore a T-shirt saying "Tlingit Power."
Forty-six youths are taking the training. Twenty of them are high school juniors and seniors from Southeast Alaska. Eighteen participants are in the Preparing Indigenous Teachers for Alaska Schools program at UAS. Eight students are interns at Sealaska Corp.
High school students receive one high school credit and three college credits.
Hannah Crayne, who is in the Preparing Indigenous Teachers for Alaska Schools program, said she is learning how to embed Native culture in her lesson plans.
"Incorporation is nice because you learn the Native culture from all aspects of the curriculum," Crayne, 18, said. "We are not trying to exclude whites or Natives. We just want to show them there are different ways of looking at things."
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