Indigenous People’s Culture Week is a hit at Mt. Eccles

Cross-cultural education thrives in Cordova, Native wisdom, lifestyle and traditional crafts and foods taught for a week in grade school by elders and local volunteers

Mt. Eccles Elementary School students in kindergarten through sixth grade took part in Indigenous People’s Culture Week in a partnership between the Native Village of Eyak and the Cordova School District, Oct. 3-7.

Culture Week, as the educational endeavor is fondly referred to by those who make it happen, allows Cordova’s children the chance to learn about the Alaska Native People of the local region, through hands-on crafts, learning the Eyak language, participating in Native dance, studying subsistence lifestyle opportunities such as hunting and fishing, Native Youth Olympics, harvesting natural plants and berries and the preparation of traditional Native foods.

“NVE’s sponsorship of the Culture Week honors Alaska Natives,” said NVE Executive Director Kerin Kramer, “and shows our culture is alive and relevant today. It gives the rest of the community a chance to see the ongoing contributions the First People make to Cordova’s overall way of life.”

The program began three years ago, but didn’t run every year. This year marks the comeback for the Native culture-based curriculum at the school.

Native Village of Eyak’s Brooke Johnson, who is the cultural director for the Ilanka Cultural Center, is the driving force behind Culture Week.

“Three years ago, we had a successful culture week at Mt. Eccles,” Johnson said. “We’d been talking about what a great experience it was for the students.”

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NVE and the Cordova School District wanted to teach students about local Native traditions and the Native people of this area.

“Culture Week embodies the push we are making, toward a more place-based (locally relevant), project-based, experiential education,” said Mt. Eccles Elementary School Principal Gayle Groff. “Walking through the classrooms all week, I was continually struck by how engaged the students were in the learning. The teachers will use this to weave their ‘magic,’ as they tie Culture Week experiences to other learning in our regular curriculum, making it more meaningful to students, as well.”

The Eyak People have called this area home for more than 10,000 years.

Native tribal elders Leona Olsen, Patience Andersen-Faulkner, Eva Hager, Nora Hodson and Faye Pahl joined in the fun, sharing their wisdom with the young ones.

“We have a lot we can learn from our elders if we take the time to listen,” Johnson said. “The kids are learning our place in the world and to treat it with respect.”

Mt. Eccles was filled with new languages, songs and dances.

Students enjoyed a plethora of traditional Native foods, new to the palates of many.

Darrel Olsen is the president of the NVE Tribal Council. He assisted during Culture Week as the local education coordinator for Chugachmiut, a regional tribal consortium.

Students taste-tested seal, herring eggs on seaweed, fry bread, fish pie, halibut, salmon eggs on crackers, pickled fish, berries, smoked salmon wraps, fried salmon and dip.

“The kids learned and were exposed to the language, dance, food, art, history and knowledge of the different Native cultures in Cordova,” Olsen said. “They learned that we use resources from the land. They cut up fish and learned the uses and important of plants and received stories on hunting.”

This was Olsen’s first time volunteering at Culture Week.

Barbara Olsen, Darrel Olsen’s mother, was involved in the past, but has since passed away.

Having the opportunity to carry on his mother’s tradition of giving back to the community makes Olsen smile.

“I was so happy that my two nieces, Denise Olsen and Shyla Olsen, were involved,” he said.

Shyla Krukoff Olsen led Native dances and language classes as the language coordinator for Chugachmiut. She was assisted by Leona Olsen, a tribal elder who also taught the Aleut language.

Kari Brookover, regional education coordinator and Rene’ Contreras, program manager, both with Chugachmiut Heritage Preservation Program, assisted with classes on Tuesday and Wednesday.

“I was so proud to see the older students,” Olsen said, “Denise Olsen, Lizzi Arnold, Drake and Jimmy Riley, assisting. Students were so happy to see family and friends in the school. We’re fortunate to have parents and adults involved. Mt Eccles’ teachers, staff and administration are great. It was definitely a combined effort on the part of many.”

Kanisha Tiedeman taught the youngsters in the kindergarten class during the week.

They learned about hunting and gathering berries, how to make their own high bush cranberry juice with sparkling water, participated in NYO games and Native dance, made pickled fish and akutuq (berry ice cream), made leaf garlands and beaded berry buckets, animal masks and amulet/medicine pouches, and learned words in the Supiaq Native language.

Tiedeman practices a subsistence, cultural lifestyle and loves to gather, fish and hunt.

She and her children, Tanner and Akalya, harvested the high bush cranberries for the class. Her heritage, she said, is as a human on planet Earth, with family who are German, Russian and Supiaq.

“I enjoyed seeing how excited the kids were to participate,” Tiedeman said. “To listen and to learn hands-on skills, how to make their own choices and to express their own creativity and strengths. One student told me that I was nice! That gave me a smile in my heart.”

What did the students at Mt. Eccles Elementary School think about their Culture Week experiences?

Retired schoolteacher Sandy VanDyck, who now works as an instructional aide at the elementary school, collected the following quotes from children who participated.

“I especially liked the Native dancing and the fried salmon,” said fifth grader Leland Galera.

“The classes were really fun,” said first grader Amelia Hottinger. “I learned how to make a headdress. It was pretty.”

“Culture Week is cool because you get to sew,” said sixth grader Natchly Quinones Fernandez. “We are sewing mini-pockets made out of beaver fur. It is entertaining and you get to learn new stuff you have never learned.”

“It’s awesome, because we learn the languages, we get to see how to fillet and get to learn about different animal skins,” said third grader Blake Bailey.

“I think most of the students had fun,” Johnson said. I have been hearing them sing their songs. They are saying hello (camaqa) to me as we pass in the hallway and they are engaged in their activities.”

It was a memorable, active and fun-filled week.

“Mt. Eccles is more than the people under the school roof every day,” Groff said. “Having community partners like the Native Village of Eyak and their volunteers sharing their expertise and passion, adds a tremendous amount of value to the students’ learning experience. We cannot thank them enough.”

Johnson is pleased with the outcome.

“We really couldn’t have done this without the volunteers,” Johnson said, “To teach all of the classes, without the teachers and school employees letting us come in and be loud, and fillet fish in the classroom, without the people behind the scenes helping prep projects and clean up, and cook food. Most of all, we couldn’t have done it without the support of the students and their families. Thank you to NVE and Cordova School District for financially making this event happen.”

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Cinthia Gibbens-Stimson
Cinthia Gibbens-Stimson is a staff writer and photographer for The Cordova Times. She has been writing in one form or another for 30-plus years and has had a longstanding relationship with The Cordova Times starting in 1989. She's been an Alaskan since 1976 and first moved to Cordova in 1978. She's lived in various West Texas towns; in Denver, Colorado; in McGrath, Cordova, Galena, Kodiak, Wasilla, Anchorage and Fairbanks, Alaska and in Bangalore, India. She has two children and three grandchildren. She can be reached at [email protected] or follow her on Instagram @alaskatoindia.