Friday was a day of celebration at Cooper Landing School.
The community turned out to join students and guests from the Kenaitze Indian Tribe and the U.S. Forest Service for special events summing up "Windows to the Past," a year-long project that ties together past, present and future.
Students from kindergarten through eighth grade tested their skills in Native Youth Olympics events throughout the morning. Everyone gathered for a potluck potlatch lunch. After eating, the group went to the K'Beq interpretive site along the Kenai River to look at the new signs the children designed.
"This is kind of the culminating event," said Sheryl Sotelo, the teacher who organized the project.
"Windows to the Past" has turned out bigger than anyone involved anticipated, and she was delighted with the large turnout Friday, she said.
The entire student body of 35 was involved in the project, which wove interdisciplinary elements of the Kenai Peninsula's Kenaitze Native heritage, natural history and archaeology into lessons over the past year.
Sotelo obtained a $10,000 grant last year from the Toyota Tapestry Grants for Teachers Program, which is sponsored by Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc.
She then worked with the Cultural Heritage Program of the Kenaitze Indian Tribe, IRA and Chugach National Forest to set up an ambitious series of activities.
Bernadine Atchison, the tribe's cultural heritage director, and cultural aide Maggie Moonin visited the school once or twice a month throughout the year to do projects with the students. They helped teach songs, dances, crafts and traditional physical contests now included in the Native Youth Olympics.
"It's really fun," said Emily Bellinger, 13, a seventh-grader.
The students made dream catchers, agate pouches, drums, rhythm sticks and counting cords, which record passing days with knots, beads and attached mementos.
"We'll use a really cool bead for this potlatch," said sixth-grader Kelsey Skolnick, 12.
The students drew pictures of traditional crafts and tools, printed them on T-shirts and dyed the shirts using birch bark.
They also learned a few words of Dena'ina, which belongs to the notoriously difficult Athabaskan language family.
"It was weird," said 11-year-old, sixth-grader Mikala Smith.
The students also praised a series of field trips. They visited the Anchorage Museum of History and Art and Agate Beach near Salamatof.
Eighth-grader Matthew Smith, 14, said the trips were among the high points of the year for him.
Students said they had known little about the area's Dena'ina heritage before the project, and it gave them a new perspective on Cooper Landing, the peninsula and the Kenaitze.
As it progressed, the project brought in more people and support from the community.
"We always had four to six parents on any given project, plus Bernadine and Maggie," Sotelo said.
Nikiski resident Larry Ford showed students how to make stone tools, the anthropology department at Kenai Peninsula College contributed expertise, and the Alaska Science and Technology Founda-tion gave Sotelo an additional $5,000 grant.
"The depth of the project was really enhanced by the additional funding," she said.
The biggest undertaking was designing the signs for K'Beq, a roadside turnout just west of Cooper Landing.
The tribe has a special use authorization from the Forest Service to run an interpretive program at the site near the Russian River. The tribe formerly used a smaller site, called "Footprints," to the west. The new site has more room, is quieter and is close to the popular campground, said Forester Karen Kromrey.
"This site is wonderful," she said.
Chugach National Forest representative Katy Tothstauble worked with the school and tribe. Students researched individual topics, such as use of plants, house pits and traditional fishing methods. They wrote the texts and designed graphics, learning new software skills in the process. They also posted what they learned on a Web page they designed linked to the Cooper Landing School site.
Spenard Builders Supply donated lumber for the boardwalk and posts; the Forest Service provided the equipment and labor for mounting the displays.
The display is up, but the project is far from finished.
Today, the school children plan to join KPC archaeology students for a three-day mock archaeological dig. Students buried items in the fall and will see how difficult they are to relocate and how they have changed after a winter in the soil. One pit reflects finds typical of the Kenai Peninsula; the other is seeded with items from the U.S. Southwest, so students can compare the nomadic hunting culture of the Kenaitze to the settled agricultural remains of the Southwest.
Representatives of the tribe involved in "Windows to the Past" have been so pleased with the Cooper Landing project they are looking to it as a model for future projects.
Velma Carroll, the tribal programs' director, attended the potlatch to express support. The tribal delegation presented medallions to each student for their participation and honored the school with a certificate of achievement, citing the program as "an opportunity to continue to preserve and protect Dena'ina language, culture and tradition, while connecting youth, adults and elders with the Dena'ina past, present and future."
Atchison said she is talking to teachers at other schools and planning field trip activities for the K'Beq site.
"This year has been a lot of fun," she said.
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