Tlingit culture camp prepares kids for school

Posted: Sunday, August 17, 2003

The young children, led by teacher Kitty Eddy's voice and her fingers, chanted in unison as they counted in English from one to 100, pausing to stretch out the nines - "thirty-niiiiine" - before gathering speed on the next set of numbers. Then they counted, with the same vigor, the numbers in Tlingit.

The school year hasn't begun yet, but about 20 students who are entering or who have been in the Juneau School District's two Tlingit-oriented classrooms at Harborview Elementary attended a free two-week culture camp that ended Friday.

The camp was funded by a federal grant to the Sealaska Heritage Institute. Teachers hope the incoming kindergartners will feel more comfortable in school, and returning students will ease into the new school year. A few older students attended as role models for the younger children.

The camp also gives teachers and students time for more extended projects, such as catching, cleaning, brining and smoking fish, or picking berries and making jam and fixing up some fried bread to put it on.

The activities with fish "really focused on traditional respect for salmon," cultural specialist Nancy Douglas said.

Students learned to clean salmon with the fish's head upstream so its spirit can continue its journey, and to return inedible parts to the water, and to say "thank you" in Tlingit to the fish, she said.

"You can be more involved and kids can be more involved (during the camp) because the regular school day is so chopped up," Eddy said.

Those summer activities mean students have something to talk about and write about when they're in the literacy-based classrooms. Even in the summer camp, students read and write each day.

"We found that our kids needed experiences to be able to use as spinoffs for reading and writing, so we needed to have experiences together," Eddy said.

Hans Chester, who teaches courses at Sealaska Heritage's Kusteeyi Native language program for adults, visited the classroom to teach students the Tlingit names for the salmon species, colors, and simple instructions such as stand up and sit down.

"He gives you enough cues and clues with his body language that you can figure out what he wants you to do," Eddy said.

Even if Chester's Tlingit expressions aren't always understood, teacher Shgen George has a ready-made reply: "Right back at you!"

The culture camp is a relaxing forum for the teachers, parents and students to get to know each other. Teachers refer to the students as "friends."

After lunch Friday, Eddy started the camp day with Kai McQueen, who will be a first-grader, leading the class in changing the calendar.

"What do you need to do to that 'tomorrow' card - the number?" Eddy prompted Kai. He put in the number 16. All together the children chanted "Yesterday was the 14th, today is the 15th, and tomorrow will be the 16th."

"So what's the job of a calendar?" Eddy asked the children, who were seated on the floor in front of her. And they answered in unison: to keep track of what day it is.

They also used the calendar to practice Tlingit and mathematical patterns. As Kai pointed, they called out the Tlingit word for blueberries for three days in a row and then the word for salmon every fourth day.

After some counting exercises in English and Tlingit, Eddy asked the children to stand and sing the Tlingit national anthem.

"OK, ladies and gentlemen, you need to stand very proudly and sing very beautifully. So find your spot very respectfully," she told the children.

As Douglas drummed, the children swayed and sang, holding their arms out with their hands palms up.

Then the children split up, some to make fried bread, some to paint their new bookbags, some to write a few sentences about picking blueberries, and others to string beads.

When a girl silently indicated she wanted the powdered milk at the fried bread table, Douglas asked her, "What are your words, dear? 'Please' - 'please' what? Thank you for using sentences."

Eddy patiently walked Darrian Washington, a first-grader, through each sound of her sentences about blueberries. " 'Blue' - buh, buh, buh," Eddy said, and the girl thought, consulted a printed alphabet card, and then wrote the letter "b."

When Darrian was done, Eddy told her: "You did a super, super job. Can we fix one thing? All the letters at the beginning of a sentence have to be capitals."

After that, Eddy and Darrian exchanged high-fives.

Thomas Johnnie Sr., who has two children in the Tlingit classrooms but who couldn't attend the camp, said his kids count the days to school.

The Tlingit-oriented classrooms "really opened up my boys from being shy," he said. "More outgoing. It's really brought out what they were holding inside culturewise, and they're very excited."

Eric Fry can be reached at

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