Culture Camp Teaches Youth About Mat-Su Valley’s First People

[lightbox link=”” thumb=”×200.jpg” width=”300″ align=”left” title=”Photo by Jason Moore” frame=”true” icon=”image” caption=”Photo by Jason Moore”]Honoring the profound significance of salmon to both the lifestyle and spirituality of Alaska Native cultures, Knik Tribal Council’s (KTC) annual summer culture camp treated youth in grades K-6 to a lesson in how to catch, identify, handle and process this most precious resource. But “Shan Qayeh,” or “fish camp,” is much more than a training ground for future salmon enthusiasts.

“It’s such an adventure to be doing this camp,” said Kevin Toothaker, KTC education and social services director. “We do activities like using GPS tracking to find beads for counting cords (a traditional Dena’ina string calendar). We’re trying to combine modern technology with traditional paths so we can save the paths.”

In collaboration with the Matanuska-Susitna School District, KTC held its 2016 Shan Qayeh July 11-15 in various locations throughout Mat-Su. One hundred youth spent the week going on nature walks, creating Mason jar drums and learning to identify animal tracks. Each day included a lesson in the Dena’ina Athabascan language and a field trip.

The afternoon of Tuesday, July 12, campers arrived at a beach site along Goose Bay where the Anchorage skyline can be seen across the water. Wearing t-shirts they had designed earlier in the day, the group gathered at the bluff to sing. The song was led by camp manager and CIRI shareholder Vide Kroto. “This year’s theme is ‘Connection to the Land.’ The tribe’s job is to share our heritage with the younger generation because it doesn’t belong to us – it belongs to everyone,” Kroto said.

The campers then broke into smaller groups and took turns heading down the bluff to a fish site where they were taught the proper way to handle a salmon. KTC Secretary Raymond Theodore, also a CIRI shareholder, demonstrated filleting techniques, which gave the children the opportunity to use what they had learned earlier in the week to identify the fish’s organs and its sex. Salmon caught throughout the week will be processed and distributed among the campers; the remainder will be canned and shared with Elders.

“So far, my favorite activity has been learning about fish and dissecting them,” said 10-year-old Seda McCabe. “I’m Iñupiaq, so learning the history of the Dena’ina people has been really interesting for me.”

Ten-year-old Aliahna Karsunky expressed similar sentiments. “I’m Haida and Tlingit, not Dena’ina, so it’s all new to me, but it’s been pretty great. I’m learning respect for the Earth, and I’m looking forward to making more new friends.”

Shan Qayeh is open to Mat-Su students in grades K-6 who hold a valid Certificate Degree of Indian Blood (CDIB), which can be obtained from the Bureau of Indian Affiars (BIA). Funding for the camp comes from the BIA and the Child Care Development Fund, with generous support from Cook Inlet Tribal Council, Food 4 Kids and other donors. For more information on Shan Qayeh, search for “Knik Tribal Council” on Facebook.