Visitors to the Alaska Native Heritage Center cannot miss them. They are greeting them on their way in; thanking them for coming on their way out; and in between, serving as staff, cultural hosts, tour guides, storytellers, dancers and demonstrators of Native ways of life.
More than 30 high-school and college-age interns are earning paychecks while sharing their culture this summer. Most of the interns are current or past participants of the center’s national award-winning High School Cultural Education Program (HSCEP). HSCEP offers courses in Alaska Native games, Alaska Native dance, Alaska Native arts, media arts and leadership.
“Our educational programs are stronger than they have ever been,” said Annette Evans Smith, Alaska Native Heritage Center president and CEO. “The success and accomplishments of our current and former students enrolled in HSCEP is so important to Center staff and is core to what we do.”
Among the interns is CIRI descendant Andrew Demientieff, 18. The son of CIRI shareholder Valerie Demientieff, he is a Native games demonstrator and culture host who joined the program three years ago after playing just about every other sport except his traditional ones.
“I wasn’t good at all at first,” he said. “I couldn’t even kick past my head. It wasn’t demoralizing when I saw people kicking higher than me, it was motivational.”
At this year’s state Native Youth Olympics, Demientieff placed in several events including first in the two-foot high kick and took home an Overall Outstanding Athlete Award for accumulating the most points. This summer, when he’s not on stage kicking several feet past his head, he can be found at the Athabascan Village Site sharing history and stories.
Jay Rapoza, another CIRI descendant and former HSCEP participant, is now a media arts instructor at the Alaska Native Heritage Center and an anthropology student at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He has seen many kids blossom through the program.
“We had one student, he was painfully shy. His hood would be all the way down, covering his eyes. He wouldn’t talk to other kids; he’d just go off in a corner by himself. We’d try to encourage him to hang out with the others; he’d be like, ‘Nah, I’m good here.’ Then in February or March, he took off his hood. He was sporting a new haircut, and hanging out with kids, talking. So that’s a great example of helping kids find their way.”
“It is almost like the summer becomes the advanced placement aspect of our instruction,” said Steven Alvarez, who created and directs the program.
“A lot of what we do here is instill self-esteem,” Alvarez said. “We want to strengthen students with a cultural armor forged in the pride of who they are and where they come from. It has been proven through studies that when students feel good about who they are, they do better in school.”
Recruitment for the free program, which includes food and transportation, begins in area high schools in September. For more information, visit www.alaskanative.net or call (907) 330-8000.