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By Marc Lutz
Wrangell Sentinel 

Teens use project to help preserve cultural heritage


January 25, 2023 | View PDF

Marc Lutz/Wrangell Sentinel

Seniors Steven Bales, left, and Randy Churchill gather around an old bench on Shakes Island. They will build new benches as part of their senior project to replace the worn-out pieces.

Five benches on Shakes Island that have been there possibly more than 50 years are showing signs of their age. Thanks to two Wrangell teens, the benches will soon be replaced with all new ones.

Steven Bales, 17, and Randy Churchill, 18, will build new benches out of yellow cedar as part of their senior project. It's a small way in which they can help preserve their Tlingit heritage and give back to the community.

Originally, Churchill was going to help with Wolfpack Wrestling - for elementary-age kids - since his younger brother joined it. Bales was going to work on the bench project on his own. Since Churchill joined the basketball team, it kept him from being involved with the junior wrestling squad.

"Then I asked him if he wanted to help me with my project," Bales said. "I said, 'We can do it at your house.'"

"That was the perfect fit," Churchill said.

"Especially since I'm always over there," Bales added.

"He's always there anyway," Churchill confirmed.

The two have been building woodshop projects for about six years when they first collaborated on a gun case in Churchill's dad's workshop, the same workshop they'll be building the benches.

"My dad likes making anything to do with anything," Churchill said. "One time, we were watching my dad build cupboards for my grandma, so we decided we wanted to build something too. We made a gun case. It took us four hours?"

"I really want to burn that gun case," Bales said with a laugh.

Since the lamentable gun case, the two have built other items together and on their own, like nightstands and other projects using reclaimed wood from a U.S. Forest Service building. Churchill also worked with classmate Jacen Hay on a hexagonal table that is now used at the middle school.

Both Bales and Churchill have been active within the tribe since their youth. Churchill was involved with JOM (Johnson-O'Malley, a Bureau of Indian Education program for public schools) until he focused more on wrestling, bringing home a state championship this year.

They realized they would need to build new benches when they went down to Shakes Island to inspect the old ones. They knew it would be too much work to try refurbishing the hold, mossy and rotted benches, so they decided to go with new benches that allow for water to drain off them.

"Plus, we're both of Native heritage and we'd be giving back to our Native culture at the same time," Churchill said.

The Wrangell Cooperative Association has discussed doing something about the benches for a while, said tribal administrator Esther Reese. With the boys volunteering their time, she said it's a benefit for the tribe and the students.

"I'm very happy that young adults from the tribe are wanting involvement via senior projects," she said. "I think it's going to be a valuable project for them."

She likened it to past generations handing down their knowledge to bolster the Tlingit culture.

"Our ancestors were there, raising their descendants up to be leaders, and now we are raising up the next generation," Reese said. "It's very gratifying to hear about the next generation wanting to be involved in their culture to make it a vibrant, alive thing for all of us."

After graduating, Churchill plans to get certified in plumbing and heating. Then he wants to pursue a professional career in mixed martial arts. "I want to go to Colorado because I like the coaches I've seen there. I like their coaching style, but I have to earn my way there first," he said.

Bales doesn't have as ambitious a plan as his friend.

"I'm pretty undecided," he said. "I want to travel a little bit. That's all I have on the agenda so far. I mostly want to figure things out."


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