Wrangell Sentinel -

By Dan Rudy 

Youth dancing group celebrates Native heritage


Dan Rudy/ Wrangell Sentinel

Led along by Arthur Larsen (center-right, stooped) members of the Kaats'litaan Dancers perform at a Wrangell High School assembly Friday morning to mark November's National Native Heritage Month. The K-12 group is part of the local Johnson O'Malley program, which provides supplemental cultural education.

On Friday morning, students at Wrangell High School assembled in the gym to watch a special presentation by the Kaats'litaan Dancers, a K-12 group that is part of the local Johnson O'Malley program.

Presented by educators and a panel of elders, the demonstration meant to mark this November's National Native Heritage Month. Student Jade Balansag read President Barack Obama's official proclamation of the commemorative month, issued Oct. 31.

"The first stewards of our environment, early voices for the values that define our Nation, and models of government to our Founding Fathers," she read. "American Indians and Alaska Natives helped build the very fabric of America. Today, their spirit and many contributions continue to enrich our communities and strengthen our country."

"Our theme is Native pride and spirit. Yesterday, today and forever," said Lu Knapp, director of Indian Education with the schools. Herself a member of the Wrangell Dancers group, Knapp has been involved in local Tlingit culture for 28 years.

"The reason we're showing our children today is because they have a lot of pride and spirit," she told the assembly.

Wearing cloaks, robes and bandanas like those used ceremonially, the group performed a number of traditional dances and songs. Between sets, some explanation was given about the cultural relevance of each piece.

Important items were also highlighted. For example, Brody Knecht wore a replica of the Tsax S'aaxw, or Marmot Hat, an article dating back to the 1880s which was repatriated by the Smithsonian Institute last April. And dancer Ryan Rooney wore a replica of the Killer Whale Hat, the decorative fin of which may soon be returned as well.

The group had members of all ages, some of whom have been dancing for years and others only just starting. Earlier this summer, the Kaats'litaan Dancers performed for Celebration 2014 in Juneau, a festival organized by Sealaska Heritage Institute.

"I remember when I was eight years old and we danced at Wrangell High School, and I was petrified," recalled Virginia Oliver, head of Wrangell's JOM program.

The program provides supplemental educational opportunities and advocacy for Alaska Native and American Indian students from three years of age through grade 12 in the Wrangell, Juneau and Haines public school systems. By offering language classes and other youth programming it introduces children to their cultural heritage and aims to foster in them an appreciation for it.

"If they know where they came from they know where they're going," said Knapp. The underlying message is about respect: for oneself, for others, and for one's elders.

"We're continually teaching these children pride and respect," Oliver explained. For more information on the program, inquire at 874-2909.


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