‘It makes my heart beat:’ Chilkoot culture camp comes back to life

Culture camp participants, friends, and family share a potluck on the last day of the July camp. (Photo by Emily Files/KHNS)

Culture camp participants, friends, and family share a potluck on the last day of the July camp. (Photo by Emily Files/KHNS)

Along the banks of the Chilkoot River near Haines, there’s an old culture camp that stood empty for years.

A group of young people recently decided to revitalize the traditional site.

The Chilkoot Indian Association and the Haines Public Library worked together this year and last to put on the event.

A few minutes before feasting on fish and berries, the 15 or so culture camp kids line up in front of a crowd of family and friends.

Leader Heather Powell asks them what they want to teach their future grandkids.

“How to live off the land,” one child says.

“I want my grandkids to know that no matter what, everything happens for a reason and they’ll be accepted,” says another.

“When we very first started camp, we asked the students, what do you want your grandchildren to know?” Powell explained.

Powell is Tlingit language teacher currently working in Hoonah. She has spent much of her summer teaching Tlingit and traditional skills at culture camps.

“They say when your language goes, the culture is soon to follow,” Powell said. “But in this camp we heard many of these kids take that commitment very serious, to continue learning, to continue trying, to not be afraid to fail and make mistakes. I think that’s comforting.”

Powell is one of the camp counselors with ties to this gathering place. She said some of her relatives helped Austin Hammond with the inception of the Chilkoot Culture Camp decades ago.

Ted Hart tells the story of why Hammond started the camp.

“He kept having this dream. There were tables full of food out, but no one was eating it,” Hart said. “He was trying to figure out what it meant. He finally figured out, you’ve got to tell these people it’s OK to go to the table and start eating the food. He had to bring them in, he had to tell them to come to where they’re needed. So he created this culture camp for the kids.”

Hart is with the Chilkoot Indian Association. He’s one of the people who helped bring this camp back to life. He kept driving by, seeing it empty.

“I just felt it was really important to get these kids together, working on putting up food and respecting the land,” Hart said. “We’re all creating future leaders right now.”

“It’s the tradition of how we learned and how it used to be and how we talked to animals and stuff,” said 11-year-old Douglas Adams.

He shares one memorable experience from the camp.

“This carver named Wayne Price … he adzed these paddles,” Adams recounted. “And after he did that, we took this big canoe, it’s red and black. We took it out and we walked it and we started singing a Tlingit song when we got out there. We started canoeing and singing and having fun out there. It’s really tradition for me to be here and I want to learn all about the culture of what we used to be.”

“I really like culture and I like learning about cultures, so that kind of intrigued me,” said Matilda Rogers, who is almost 13 years old. This is her first culture camp.

“My favorite part is probably listening to the stories our grandparents had to tell us,” Rogers said. “Because it was really interesting to learn what they have seen and how they grew up.”

Smith Katzeek Sr. is one of a handful of elders who told stories and shared knowledge at the camp.

“It makes my heart beat,” Katzeek said. “It’s like life coming back.”

Ted Hart said the Chilkoot camp is part of a cultural resurgence in Haines.

“The culture’s been pretty quiet around here in previous years,” Hart said. “But we’re making steps to getting stronger.”

Hart and the other organizers hope to keep the culture camp alive in years to come.

They say the children are already talking about next year.

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