Young Natives go to culture 'boot camp'

Sharing Heritage

Posted: Thursday, August 17, 2006

About 40 young Alaska Native recruits are finishing up an intense, two-week leadership camp in Juneau this week.

The students - all descendants of Sealaska Corp. shareholders - stretched their knowledge with rigorous lectures about Native heritage.

They also stretched their limbs, with traditional dancing and hiking.

When the second annual Latseen Leadership Camp at the University of Alaska Southeast ends Friday, the high school and college campers will have earned college credits in language, physical education and Alaska Native history. Latseen means "strength" in Tlingit.

"We are learning about what things were like in the old days," said Thomas Mills, a 16-year-old Juneau-Douglas High School student.

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The camp was funded this year through a partnership between the U.S. Forest Service Alaska Regional Office, the Sealaska Heritage Institute and UAS. The camp instructors were primarily elders and Panhandle Native scholars.

"The camp was envisioned by our traditional scholars," said Barbara Cadiente-Nelson, educational director for Juneau's Sealaska Heritage Institute.

"They saw a need to build up our Native youth, especially young men," she said.

In their hands-on coursework, the students learned how to carve daggers and built a smokehouse at the University of Alaska Southeast. They cleaned a Native cemetery on Douglas Island. They also took classes on ethnographic research to prod them to learn about their own history and that of the region's traditional people, the Auke Kwaan and the Taku Kwaan, Cadiente-Nelson said.

Daily, the campers rose at 7 a.m. for martial arts practice.

"That was awesome," Mills said Wednesday.

On Wednesday afternoon, the students trekked on foot to Indian Point, a sacred spot for area Tlingits.

That night, the students and their Tlingit teachers convened at the historical site of Juneau's Auke Kwaan village to dance and bake salmon in a traditional way - buried in the ground.

One proud mother, Tricia Myers, of Juneau, watched as her daughter Kyla, 17, danced on the sand at the Auke Village Recreational Area beach.

"She loves what (the camp) teachers her about her culture," Myers said.

Later, standing with a drum in her hand on the beach, Tricia Myers said that the camp has been a good opportunity to learn more about Southeast Alaska Native history and how to resolve modern Native problems.

The camp ends Friday evening with student presentations, an awards dinner and Strong Man dance performance.

• Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at

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