Camp immerses youth in Native culture

Central Council sponsors event to help young Alaskans relate to past, people and environment

Posted: Monday, August 17, 2009

From making devil's club salve to weaving their first cedar basket, youth attending Tlingit & Haida Central Council's Culture Camp spent the weekend immersed in Native culture. For many, the event was all about making connections.

"The whole goal of camp is to help them relate to the environment and who they are," said Leilani Knight, a camp organizer and environmental technician for the council's Native Lands and Resources Environmental Programs. "There's a simple saying we have: We have Earth Day every year, but it's Earth Day every day for Native people, because we're so connected to the land, the air and the sea. It is who we are; we can't get away from it."

Approximately 50 youth ages 10 to 15 - half of whom were from Juneau, the rest from Metlakatla, Yakutat, Petersburg, Hoonah, Prince of Wales, Anchorage and Seattle - arrived for the four-day overnight camp Thursday at SAGA's Eagle Valley Center to learn about Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian traditions.

Participants learned about their moieties. They also studied Native Alaskan art and design through painting, drawing, weaving and beading, as well as singing, dancing, storytelling, and gathering and preparing food. Camp also culminated Sunday with a ceremonial potlatch. This year's theme addressed environmental issues as well as identifying invasive and edible plants.

"We're teaching them how to recognize what belongs and what doesn't belong so we can better manage the invasive plants in our area," Knight said.

Ages 12 to 15 also worked on leadership skills through speaking, trust-building and risk-taking activities. And each chose an environment goal or issue to address and stay connected with throughout the year.

"Maybe they want to address recycling or protection of the animals or a certain area," Knight said. "It's actually taken quite a bit of work to figure out how to keep it all culture but also to keep a leadership team together Southeast-wide."

In the end, Knight hopes to see more Native people involved in the environmental science careers.

"That's my personal, professional goal for youth," she said. "Hopefully they understand the importance of the environment and how we can't separate ourselves from it. ... If I can help them tap that understanding that they are the best keepers of this land, that they can take charge, choose careers in this field and make decisions about our earth, that would be the ultimate climax for me. I can retire."


For Juneau's Kerri Sheakley, a camp organizer and jam-making instructor, this is her third year being involved with culture camp. She and another volunteer, Ray Henderson, co-hosted Kasaan's culture camp.

"I enjoy creating relationships and friendships with all the kids and the staff," she said.

MaryAnn Porter, of Yakutat, along with Juneau elder Anita Lafferty, helped teach beading, headband making and language and concepts.

"You can see they're totally engrossed in everything," Porter said of the campers. "In this day and age, they don't have an opportunity to go out anymore. So for them to connect, feel the earth again beneath their feet and get that energy, you just can tell it's just great."

Porter and Lafferty also helped campers identify and understand their moieties, which is passed on through their mother.

"There was one young man who didn't have a moiety, and we said, 'OK, who wants him?' and everybody said, 'We do! We do!'" Porter explained. "So the Eagles won out. We won him, so he's now an Eagle."

Porter praised the camp's use of elders in combination with Forest Service representatives as instructors.

"They went out with a Forest Service fellow who was extremely knowledgeable with plants," Porter said. "And you could see them light up, they're just learning."


Junetta Peterson, 13, who came from Anchorage for the camp, said she wanted to learn about her Native background.

"I'm Eskimo, but I'm learning from my step-dad's side, Tlingit," she said. "I like how we learn how to make baskets and jam."

Ry Ann Hobert, 12, of Juneau, said she most enjoyed camping outside.

"I get to meet a lot of different people in my tent, and the experience with other kids is really good," she said.

Karoline Henry, 17, of Hoonah, explained the basics of making devil's club salve. They collect stalks, singe the thorns, then peel the green bark. It cooks overnight in a crock pot with olive oil and bees wax.

"If it's a deep wound, you have to wait for it to scab up to put it on," Henry said. "I guess it can be harmful if it's split open all the way."

Henry, who did a similar camp last year, said it was just plain fun.

"It's a good chance to learn about your culture, because you can never know enough stuff."


Storyteller Walter Porter, MaryAnn's husband, spent the weekend teaching campers how to understand the messages and symbols in Native myths.

"I tell stories, then we go through it, and I show them how to recognize the symbols in the stories," Porter said, "For example, star is for guidance, water is for cleansing, a crying baby is totally dependent on his parents, those kinds of things as part of the story."

As host on Sealaska Heritage Foundation's production of "Box of Daylight," Porter naturally told that story Thursday, along with "The Cannibal" and "Raven Loses His Beak."

In "Box of Daylight," the Tlingit story of how Raven brought daylight to the world, Porter often makes connections with the Bible's New Testament.

"We see pretty much the same message - how to ask for things, how to cleanse ourselves, how to be totally dependent on the spirit world for help," Porter explained.

"The Cannibal" is about a man-eating giant who vows to continue eating men, even after they burn him for four days and nights. When the men stir the cannibal's ashes, sparks fly up and change into mosquitoes. When telling this story, Porter focuses on how indigenous cultures, such as the Rwandans, often don't have jail systems.

"They solved problems with love and compassion instead of punishing and hurting," Porter said. "I believe that's what the new millenium is all about; we'll learn how to solve our violence and our wars with each other by forgiveness."

Coming from a culture that depends heavily on its oral traditions, Porter believes storytelling is crucial for youth to practice and understand. He also believes our schools could even benefit from more storytelling.

"We learn how to visualize when we listen to stories," Porter said. "A child is a natural imager. So when we learn how to image, several things are going on, one is we stop thinking. Nowadays, we encourage children to think, but it really is backwards."

Another lesson Porter teaches through his storytelling and while at camp is a sense of community and family.

"I asked 'How many human beings in the world?'" Porter said. "One girl goes, 'There's only one human being.' In other words, we're all of the same spirit. And when we start to learn this and we start teaching other this, what good is there to steal from one another? What good is it for us to gossip about one another? What good is it for us to war with one another like we're doing? When we're all of the same spirit, it negates all that, and that's what the new millenium is about - to see each other properly and understand each other."


Camp cost a total of about $25,000 this year, but all participants were given a full scholarship, made possible by funding from the Administration for American Natives, Indian General Assistance Program (IGAP) and the Environmental Protection Agency. There was also considerable support from the community: Forest Service, SAGA, Fred Meyers, Western Auto, private citizens, the Moose Lodge and various banks. More than a dozen instructors, volunteers and chaperones also contributed.

"They all came, rallied behind us these last three months," Knight said.

Central Council plans to do the camp again next year, possibly with a new focus - a cultural exchange.

• Contact Neighbors editor Kim Andree at 523-2272 or

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