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Culture Camp teaches the ancestral ways

In this photo taken June 20, 2019, Crystal Bullock, of Ketchikan, learns from Alphonse Edwards how to make the call of a Canadian goose during Culture Camp on Hemlock Island near Metlakatla, Alaska. This year was the first time the Ketchikan Indian Community and Nüüm Na Waalt culture camps joined together for the event and a seven-night campout on the island. (Dustin Safranek/Ketchikan Daily News via AP)

KETCHIKAN, Alaska — The horizon was clear and ships passing through Nichols Passage near to Annette Island’s Port Chester could catch a glimpse of the Ketchikan Indian Community and Metlakatla’s Nüüm Na Waalt Culture Camp on their fifth day along the shoreline and in the woods camping, weaving cedar, making jewelry, playing Native flute, telling Native stories and learning bird calls by mouth with Aleut,Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian mentors.

The campout started on June 16 when 42 Ketchikan children with Ketchikan Indian Community Culture Camp boarded a catamaran at an Allen Marine dock. After a week of heavy rain in the area, they were well prepared and withdrew from Berth 1 for the eight-day, seven-night campout on the historic coastline of Hemlock Island — an Alaska Native tenure on the northwest side of Annette Island, which in the past has been operated as a Native fish camp as well as a potato farm.

The catamaran trip was about one hour long and once the Ketchikan kids, teachers, chaperones, along with KIC Culture Camp Coordinator Linda Schrack, reached their destination at State Float in Metlakatla, Naomi Leask, director of Metlakatla’s Nüüm Na Waalt camp, was there to receive the inbound group. Leask arranged a bus, which took the group about 6 miles north on Walden Point Road to a left turn onto a gravel access road. The road followed a salmon stream down to a landing near an intimidating tide-ridden bay — across the way was Hemlock Island.

A well-preserved U.S. military Quonset warehouse, which now houses hatchery supplies and equipment, bordered the right side near the road’s abrupt end. To the left of the landing was the start of a land bridge, which provided a muddy and slow approach to the island. Most of the supplies were carried over by hand across the land bridge on day one at low tide, and larger items were floated over in a two-person canoe.

After one very rainy night alone on the island, the Ketchikan campers were honoured with an addition to this year’s Culture Camp. One which sets it apart from other years, because this time KIC joined resources with Metlakatla’s Nüüm Na Waalt Culture Camp and 11 children from Metlakatla received the opportunity to camp alongside their Revillagigedo Island neighbours. But the rain stuck around through Tuesday and the group depended greatly on song, dance and stories to morale high. Terri Burr’s Bigfoot story was among those and was apart of her “Bigfoot track recovery” activity during the daytime.

The Ketchikan and Metlakatla campers ages ranged from 11 to 15 years old. They staggered their tents under the forest’s shade, but made two campsites — one for boys and one for girls.

Several of the mentors, who were invited by the Nüüm Na Waalt Culture Camp, were from Metlakatla. They brought generations of Tsimshian customs and some stayed overnight on the island to chaperone the campers, too.

Adjacent to a beached Tsimshian war canoe — the largest in Alaska according to its owner — was the corner of the closest tent to the beach, which breached the muskeg and was anchored into the sand. The tent’s door faced the water and its two open ends swung with the breeze. On the other side swapping memory cards from computer to cameras was Nüüm Na Waalt camp mentor Johon Atkinson of Metlakatla, who was preparing to launch his Native war canoe.

Atkinson explained how important it was for the young people attending the camp to connect with the land and disconnect with anything preventing that. He said he hoped that the island would provide the campers the same atmosphere that Native ancestors experienced years ago.

Earlier that afternoon campers Sophie Lynda Agoney, 13, and Alexander Orion Shull, 12, both from Ketchikan, sat on a section of the island’s beach near the camp’s fire. Each held a Native flute, and they took turns playing notes. One would play and the other would critique. Shull is Aleut; Agoney is Haida.

“It makes me happy,” Shull said. “And when Johon played it, it actually helped me sleep.”

The previous night, when the campers turned in for the night, Atkinson took the canoe across to his motor vehicle and retrieved his Native flute, which until then he thought he possibly forgot at home. The camp was still echoing with tent chatter, but after the first few notes from Atkinson’s Native flute everything went silent and the song echoed from the canoe, through the bay and into a small ravine that extended between the two ends of the camp.

“Last night was one of the most magical moments — drifting out and playing the flute,” Atkinson said. “Because everyone knew I lost my flute, but I found it!”

Agoney and Shull expressed how much they enjoyed playing the flute and how important it was to them to learn a Native song with the flutes. The persistent duo already had attempted to play a song together on the beach that afternoon, but they called for further instruction.

Atkinson showed up with another Native flute and played a series of notes, which he then instructed the two to play in unison. Agoney and Shull copied Atkinson’s pitch and followed his lead. After a few run-throughs, they were repeating part of a song together. Both kids were beginners. With Atkinson’s instruction, they discovered a way to communicate with one another though a cultural medium.

Atkinson expressed how special it was to see campers grow, heal and gain strength from each other by being out in the land during the day and from song and dance at night.

“Were bringing back the old ways,” said Atkinson. “What’s amazing about it is so many different nations have brought life back to this camp by connecting with one another, through getting to know the land and having friendships with people who they will never forget.”

Some of the camp activities required campers to work one-on one with a mentor. Others were learned as a group — as in an 18-person Native war canoe. During each activity, both culture camp’s organizers and mentors hoped that the campers would be reintroduced to the word “respect,” and its importance in the Native culture.

“They are relearning their role and relationship not only with themselves, but to others” said Leask. “To understand their relationship to the earth and why they’re not above it or separate from it. That they are a part of it.”

Every evening was met with a group circle, which provided a chance for everyone to gather and interact with another and the entire group. The circle also provided the opportunity for a camper to claim an item of their’s that was placed in the lost and found. To do this, they would have to dance in the middle of the circle. Some of the more shy campers required a little extra encouragement and instruction from a neighbour.

“That’s what we love to see, supporting one another and that’s actually our theme. We hold each other up,” said Schrack.

Because the adults get to participate in all the activities too, Schrack and Leask both agreed that some of the adults attend Culture Camp to learn more about their own and other Alaska Native cultures.

“It’s like a cultural exchange. We’re all kind of learning little things from each other,” said Leask.

In addition to Alaska Native culture, U.S. Forest Service biologist Jess Davila was invited onto the island to explain watersheds. She setup a demonstration, which illustrated how a watershed functioned, by using a crumpled sheet of paper and drawing lines in the crevices to indicate ways for water to follow gravity into the ocean. Camp co-ordinators said they hoped the project would increasingly inspire campers’ respect for the land.

Both co-ordinators plan to make Hemlock Island the destination of their next annual culture camp. Before this year, the KIC Culture Camp occupied the cabins at Orton Ranch as a mode of shelter. Camping in tents was much more popular with the children this year for reasons other than getting away from home.

Agoney explained, “I like to get deeper into my culture. This year we have tents. I like the tents more. It’s more like what we Natives did back then, because they would make forts and stuff to stay warm and dry, and I would say tents get the closest to that.”

KIC Culture Camp has become so popular with children in the Ketchikan area that Schrack has had to add a second culture camp for ages 6-10. That camp will be a five-day event held at Settlers Cove, but it’s not a sleepover like the Hemlock Island event. Children will be bussed back to Ketchikan each evening.

Camp co-ordinators made it clear that the Alaska Native children must have mentors available to them in order for their culture to be passed on accurately. They and the mentors recognize that external assimilation efforts, as well as a decreasing number of elders, is making it increasingly difficult to pass down Native traditions.

“It’s who we are,” Atkinson said. “When we lost our culture, our language, our identity. Not having that is not really knowing who we truly are. To see it, to hear it and to live it. It’s who we are. That’s where our strength comes from, that’s where our healing comes from and that’s where our inspiration comes from.”

Dustin Safranek, The Associated Press