Kenaitze Tribe searches for permanent home

Posted: Thursday, October 07, 2004

A top priority of the Kenaitze Indian Tribe is finding a central location to house many of the tribe's more than 14 cultural and educational programs.

Kenaitze Tribe Executive Director Rita Smagge spoke Wednesday at the weekly meeting of the Kenai Chamber of Commerce. Smagge told the chamber the tribe is actively seeking a location for a center, which she said she hoped could be built in downtown Kenai.

"We would like land in Old Kenai because that's where we started," she said.

The Kenaitze people are Dena'ina Athabascans who have lived in the central Kenai Peninsula for thousands of years.

The tribe is looking at sites in Old Kenai, as well as near its current administrative offices off Beaver Loop Road. Smagge said the tribe hopes to begin work on a new building within the next two years.

"It will be what we would consider a campus," she said. "We have a lot of programs, so we need a big building."

Currently the tribe's programs are administered at five separate locations around town. Smagge noted that those programs include such things as youth education, tribal courts, health care, employment training and other assistance to tribal members.

She said the tribe has an annual budget of between $5 million and $7 million and serves a membership of 1,177.

"Our mission is to foster governmental, cultural and economic well-being of our members and their families," she said.

Smagge also noted that the tribe is a major economic force in the community, employing more than 100 people -- making the tribe one of the largest employers on the peninsula.

"We are a large contributor to the economy," she said.

Perhaps the tribe's biggest contribution to the community, however, is through cultural outreach programs. Such programs include the tribe's interpretive site in Cooper Landing as well as the educational fishery at the mouth of the Kenai River.

Another unique cultural program the tribe is working on has to do with preserving its Dena'ina language. Sasha Lindgren is the tribe's educational program director.

She also addressed the chamber Wednesday, opening her speech by introducing herself to the chamber in the native Kenaitze tongue.

"Yaghali du?" she said, using the traditional Dena'ina greeting, which means, "Is it good?"

Lindgren told the chamber that preserving the tribe's language is an important part of ensuring both the young and old within the tribe are able to hold on to their Native culture.

"Right now we're working diligently in the area of language revitalization," she said.

Tribal members have been working with Kenai Peninsula College anthropologist Alan Boraas on language, as well as teaching children in the Cuya Qyut'anen Head Start program to speak the language.

"We're working with Head Start all the way up to elders," she said.

Lindgren also highlighted the tribe's K'Beq interpretive site near Cooper Landing, where tribal members work during the summer to present the rich history of the tribe in the area.

Lindgren said she hopes community members will visit the site next summer and learn more about the tribe's cultural heritage.

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