Sitka students head to Kodiak for cultural exchange

A group of students from Sitka are in Kodiak this week for the second half of an exchange with the Woody Island tribe. Like many exchange programs, this one aims to foster better understanding between two cultures. But it also could help preserve traditions lost to either side, and foster healing between two cultures with a difficult history.

A group of students is walking down the trail at Sitka National Historical Park, learning about the totem poles that line it. They’re preparing for a visit to Kodiak, as part of a cultural exchange program run by the park.

Becky Latanich is chief of interpretation and education at the park. She says sending the Tlingit youth to Kodiak is the second half of the exchange program, which began last summer.

“The first year when they came over the Kodiak people, who are Alutiiq or Aleut or Sugpiaq, came here to learn about a series of dances called the Aleut series or the Alutiiq series that, over a period of time, was lost to them, but preserved in the Tlingit culture,” Latanich said.

This year, the Tlingit students will learn more about their relationship with Kodiak. Latanich says there are some Tlingit sites in Kodiak, and the trip will offer a way for them to learn about that history.

She says all of it – the history and the dancing – is an effective way to preserve and further Native culture and tradition.

“What’s so neat is the youth involvement in the dance, because it’s the youth who are performing the dance,” Latanich said. “It’s not just something that’s locked away in the elders’ memories. It’s something that they practice, that the dancers are engaged in. We just had an evening program last Thursday where the students performed the Aleut series for their practice. More than anything you could tell that they enjoyed doing it; it was really fun. I hope they bring not just the tradition back to Kodiak but that they bring back that sense of excitement and engagement with culture back to Kodiak as well.”

Latanich says it’s one thing for the students to learn about cultural traditions. But immersing in those traditions is another thing entirely, she says.

“It’s not something you read about in a book,” she said. “It’s something that’s real and continues to exist. And it gets them excited about their past, and about the present.”

The trip is funded with a $15,000 grant from a program called “America’s Best Ideas.”

“And I think this is a very good idea,” said Kathy Drabek, tribal administrator of the Woody Island Tribal Council, which represents the Tangirnaq Native Village.

She says the visit to Kodiak will include dinners and tours, but also a healing ceremony Friday on Afognak Island, which was the site of a battle between the Tlingit and the Alutiiq people. Drabek says the majority of Tlingits were killed in the battle.

“Cries can still be heard in that location,” she said. “We’re hoping that any animosity and spiritual disruption would be forgiven with the apology ceremony and prayers.”

Drabek says giving students and elders the opportunity to engage in that kind of cultural sharing is hugely important.

“The analysis of what about history matters to an individual culture, and the similarities of different cultures interacting – I just think that’s productive for any society,” Drabek said.

16-year-old Sitka resident Sabrina Gamble was part of the program last year. She says it was tough going at first, but that a transformation took place during the visit.

“At first, everyone was just kind of ‘I don’t know what I’m doing here, I don’t want to be here.’ But by the end, all of them didn’t want to leave, because we all connected so well, and they were learning so much,” she said. “It seemed like they wanted to keep on learning more about what we were teaching them.”

Gamble says she hopes to have similar feelings on this trip to Kodiak.

“While they were here we didn’t get to learn anything about their songs,” she said. “They performed, but I think it would be nice to actually have them teach their songs.”

The students will keep journals during their trip. Sitka National Historical Park has created a Facebook page, where the students will share their observations.

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