The Cuya Qyut'anen Head Start in Kenai has a new way to teach Kenaitze children about traditional values -- and a new tradition of its own.
The preschool unveiled portraits of 10 tribal elders Wednesday during a luncheon at its new building. The portraits are just the first round of many Head Start director Connie Wirz hopes to see added to the tribe's collection of living history.
"One of the traditional values of the Dena'ina people is respecting, honoring elders," Wirz said. "We wanted to show that in a more direct way."
The elders were selected by three area tribal boards. Each submitted a list of 10 names, and those people who appeared on the lists most frequently were selected for the portrait project.
"It was a very difficult process," Wirz said. "All our elders deserve to be painted. We wanted to paint more, to honor every family and every elder."
But, she said, the money for such a large effort simply wasn't available.
The portraits were funded by the Kenaitze Indian Tribe, Salmatof Native Association, Kenai Native Association and Tanaina Corp. and were painted by Cordova-based artist Jen-Ann Kirchmeier as part of her People of the Rainbow organization.
"I didn't want to do portraits and put them up for sale in a gallery. I've done that and it didn't feel right," Kirchmeier said. "These people's history goes back generations. It's for their children and grandchildren to look at the elders and see who they are.
"It's part of keeping the culture visually alive. These alone won't do that, but it's part of that."
Kirchmeier began meeting with the selected elders in April, photographing and interviewing each to get an idea of their identities. Then, she began painting.
The portraits were just finished this month and were unveiled to community members Wednesday during a weekly luncheon for elders at the facility.
"I love it. It's beautiful," said Margie Jordan, as she looked at her own portrait.
"To me, it teaches the kids respect. I think that's the most important thing."
Fiocla Wilson added the portraits are important to remind people that the older generation is still alive and active.
But, she laughed, "It makes me look too old. I'm young at heart."
Other elders represented in the portraits included Virginia Trenton, Edna Linderman, Ed Engelstad Sr., Eva Lorenzo, Louise Rhodes, Clare Swan and Herman and Frances Lindgren.
The portraits hang high on the walls in the Head Start's new physical education building, next to the original Head Start facility on Willow Street in Kenai.
The preschool teaches a curriculum that includes traditional values, including respect for tribal elders.
"It's a way to say our elders are important to us," Wirz said. "As the little guys are playing and running around, they can look up and see their uncle, great uncle, grandma or grandpa."
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