Jerilyn, Jaylynne and Justin Gasmen on the first day of school at Mt. Eccles Elementary. Photo by Kinsey Brown for The Cordova Times

By Danaya Hoover 

Cultural Week took place at Mt. Eccles Elementary School Sept. 25 to 29.  This annual event is put on by Native Village of Eyak’s Cultural Department. NVE staff and so many volunteers work together to bring the young students of Cordova an immersive cultural experience.  Kindergarteners to 6th graders learn about dance, language, Native Youth Olympics, traditional presentations, and craft classes. Their afternoons are filled with fun and interactive stations.  

In Dance & Language, Shyla West started each day with learning Igabet, the Sugt’stun alphabet. She goes through each letter allowing the kids to hear and practice the different pronunciations. That knowledge is key to learning words to the dance songs. With patience and skill, Shyla works with each grade group to not only learn the song’s words and how they are correctly spoken, but also teaches them the dance moves to go with it. By the end of the week, all of her students had learned the song and dance and were ready to perform for their parents. Shyla makes learning fun with games and does an incredible job sharing the language of the Sugpiaq.   

Students gathered in the gym to learn Native Youth Olympics (NYO) with Coach Nick Tiedeman and new Assistant JNYO coach Kate Arduser. We had a great group of youth helpers that volunteered their time and thanks to them we are able to teach nine out of 10 NYO events. Each youth volunteer runs a station and kids are divided into groups that rotate giving everyone an opportunity to learn and practice each event.  First through sixth graders learned the one-foot-high kick, two-foot-high kick, Alaskan high kick, scissor broad jump, kneel jump, wrist carry, seal hop, stick pull, and arm pull. These games were played by Alaska Natives to test their hunting and survival skills and to build strength. The annual competition has been going on since 1972. Cordova has its own NYO and JNYO teams and everyone grades first through twelfth are encouraged to join. You do not need to be Native to participate, everyone is welcome. 

We had some guest teachers this year who represented Chugach Regional Resource Commission.  Their staff traveled to Cordova to share their knowledge with the students for the Traditional Presentations portion of the week. Three members of their staff came to talk with the kids about animals from this region, climate change and its effects, intertidal/marine topics, and subsistence.  They did an amazing job leading interactive conversations and playing educational games like what animals eat what, and a Q&A Jeopardy style.   

The last hour of the day was craft time. Each grade had a different craft project taught by some amazing creative volunteers. In kindergarten we had Jessicca Jones and Kayley Delozier. They made colored wooden dream catchers with pony beaded hangers, personalized beaded bracelets with each of their names, cut out Eyak Eye artwork, and enjoyed watching episodes of the Molly from Denali show. In first and second grade they painted wooden paddles with Jes Weaver and Shannon Phillips, who also incorporate knowledge of our past and ways of life in their lessons. Special thanks to Mark King who cut the paddles to be more traditionally shaped like the ones from this area, and to the High School Native Arts class for sanding all of the edges smooth.  Third grade learned about petroglyphs and practiced making their own rocks using another rock to make the markings and painted their designs. They also designed and painted traditional spirit masks with pieces of round wood and were bordered with fur and feathers, kids drew on the mask face and painted the details. Fourth grade learned embroidery skills with Teal Hansen. They had two styles to choose from and followed step by step instructions start to finish. They stitched the embroidery pattern onto a piece of felt with the help of some instructional videos and hands on assistance by Teal and volunteers. Once the stitches were complete, they chose another piece of colored felt to be the backing and learned the whip stitch to put it all together. In fifth grade Jessicca Jones taught students about masks, how they were made & used in the past. They colored different mask designed coloring sheets to inspire them and then they got to carve their own mask using bars of soap and a few tools. Finally, Denise Eleshansky taught the sixth graders how to make a beaded dream catcher. Students were given a hoop, shiny crystal beads, and thread. By the end of the week, they had transformed into beautiful pieces of artwork!  


At the end of the week, we invited parents to come for an assembly. This is where the students demonstrate what they have learned throughout the week, demonstrating NYO events, performing dance songs, and showcasing the crafts they completed. Following the assembly, we hosted a Traditional Food tasting Potlach. Natalie Webb (Traditional Harvesting Coordinator for NVE) did a wonderful job coordinating the tasting.  There was seal meat locally harvested by a subsistence program, and rice cooked by Glenora Sessoms and served up by Tribal Council Member Darell Olsen. Additionally, we served sikiaq smoked salmon by Mark King, Akutuq ice cream made by Mark and Natalie, fry bread made by Nora Hodsdon and Arlene Olsen, cured and smoked silver salmon eggs by Sara Tiedeman, blanched herring roe on pop weed gathered by our subsistence program, and Sitka herring roe donated by Jamie Foode. Special thanks to our food preparers and servers, it was all delicious, and special to watch all the kids give it a try and enjoy!   

That concluded the week and it was a great ending to an amazing Culture Week! Thank you to all of the teachers and staff at the school, you do amazing work with the kids year-round and we appreciate your expertise and help throughout the week. Culture week would not be possible without all the volunteers! Thank you so much for coming and participating, and helping the success of the week! We hope you all had fun and come back for next year’s event! Quyana! Awa’ah’dah! 

Danaya Hoover is the cultural director of the Native Village of Eyak.