Dena'ina visitors bring past back to life for students at Sears Elementary School

Living History

Posted: Wednesday, January 29, 2003

The past was alive and well at Sears Elementary School last week.

Members of the Kenaitze Indian Tribe visited three classrooms at the school to teach students about their heritage and the culture of the Dena'ina people.

On Thursday, in Laraine Hanson's second-grade class, for example, Amber Gardner and Laura Krodo stopped by to teach students Dena'ina dance and language.

Donning full-length leather dresses and boots, the two members of the Jabila'ina Dance Group taught the children the gathering song, the jumping song and the mosquito song, as well as the snake dance, a competitive dance and a round dance or friendship dance.

Some of the songs had hand motions, others footwork. Some involved clapping; and others the rhythm sticks students had made earlier in the week.

But each song had something in common: they all started with three beats and were sung three times.

"Three is a lucky number for the Dena'ina," Gardner explained.


Frodo walks students through the friendship dance, in which participants form two circles, one inside the other, and walk in opposite directions, shaking hands with the each person they meet.

Photo by Jenni Dillon

All of the songs also taught the children Dena'ina words, such as the names for animals and family members -- and the Dena'ina word for "thank you," which is especially important, Gardner said.

"I love to come into a classroom and see that," Gardner said, pointing to a section of the wall filled with Dena'ina words and their meanings.

"It's important kids know these are the roots of their community," she said. "I hope they are excited about what they learn and go teach others."

Krodo agreed: "It's where we live. Everybody should know something about the roots of their community."

Gardner and Krodo weren't the only Alaska Natives visiting the school last week. Other groups offered presentations on native plant use and furs and skins. The groups rotated classrooms each day, reaching about 75 students.

"They are our future," said Arthur Barbaza, the cultural heritage advocate for the Kenaitze Tribe.

But the children weren't the only ones learning last week.

"Every year, I just learn more and more about the old days," Hanson said. "It's in my nature. I love gathering things, identifying plants, things like that. You've helped."

For Gardner, helping teach others about her culture is a reward in itself.

"I've been with the tribe six months now, but I grew up in all its programs," Gardner said. "I'm teaching now. It's interesting to see the other side. I like to see kids grow in knowledge, and I try to make it as fun as possible."

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