Tlingit dance infuses education for Juneau kids

By Sarah Day
Juneau, Alaska (AP) March 2011

Children with Tlingit headpieces, paddles and raising voices danced their way through the halls of Gastineau Elementary on a Friday evening.

The Gastineau Tlingit Dancers held a celebration in honor of Elizabeth Peratrovich, along with the Alaska Native Sisterhood and Alaska Native Brotherhood on March 4.

“Without the work of those activists and organizations, we wouldn’t be able to do this together,” said Mary Folletti, Tlingit language instructor.

Folletti leads the dance group, which has about 30 participants, every Tuesday after school. This is the second year of the program.

“What’s really exciting about this to me is the young dance group,” said Anni Stokes, special education teacher. “Many of the families are coming in to share that pride. We’re very excited about this dance group. The children here know what moiety they’re in, what house they’re in.”

Both Stokes and Folletti said they have noticed students have been standing taller since they started dancing.

Folletti, working with music teacher Patrick Murphy and others, has been teaching the students Alaska Native songs. She hopes by the end of the year the students will be able to introduce the songs and composers.

“The songs I use are almost all newly-composed songs except the two Athabascan songs,” she said. “The reason we have to use songs that are newly composed is our older songs are owned by clans. You have to be careful using clan songs that you’re not stepping on anyone’s toes.”

Students danced to about 10 songs, including a healing song and a Ptramigan song. In that song, the boys acted as birds and would fall down at a distinctive drum beat by Folletti, then the girls would tap the boys to bring them back to life.

“It was traded to the Chilkat people from the Athabascan people, displays some of our ways of life,” Folletti said. “There’s lots of opportunity for laughter.”

Another song they performed was Haa Yatx’I Yis, a song Folletti wrote.

“It’s really keeping the children in mind,” she said. “That the language and culture is already within them.”

David Katzeek’s Wooch.een was another song danced to.

“The fun part of the song, what I do in the classroom, is tell the kids it’s fall time and we’re gonna have a long, hard winter ahead of us,” Folletti said.

So the students dance out collecting fish and other foods – dry it, smoke it, preserve it in oil. Through that song they learn that each one of them needs to work together to make winter less harsh. They also learn the different kinds of animals, plants and foods in Southeast Alaska and what time of year different items are collected.

Before the dancing began, ANS Camp 70 prepared dinner for a packed gymnasium at Gastineau. The program, including Folletti’s position, is sponsored by Goldbelt Heritage Foundation.

Barbara Cadiente-Nelson, GHF liaison and a district employee, said the grant that funds Alaska Native immersion is called Wooch.een, which means “working together.” It infuses $4 million in grants to the district and funds about six positions.

Cadiente-Nelson said in order for cultural education to be effective, the student, teacher and Native communities need to work together.

“We’re not teaching culture, we’re teaching through culture and that honors the indigenous heritage of our students,” she said.

Cadiente-Nelson said she looked forward to the dancing because the school promotes unity and saw the engagement of staff and students.

She lauded principal Angie Lund for her efforts in cultural immersion and the enthusiasm of the staff.

Patty McNeil, Indian Studies Program instructor and ANS Camp 70 member, said the dance group is very diverse and appreciates the school model is all-inclusive. Folletti teaches Tlingit language to every class in the building, McNeil said. “It’s a big team effort with everybody, and staff who care and support the activities.”

McNeil said she felt people really enjoyed the evening and she was glad to see the collaboration between the district and Alaska Native Sisterhood.