The first week of July, over 60 community members and nearly 150 people of all ages boarded cars, trucks, vans and an Icy Strait bus and departed Hoonah. They drove over an hour through the Tongass National Forest on a winding logging road. Far from the village and away from cellphone signal, the passengers stepped out of their vehicles to gather by a Forest Service cabin in a clearing at the edge of a turquoise bay surrounded by mountains.
For four days, participants of Hoonah’s second annual culture camp traveled to this site at Freshwater Bay and immersed themselves in Tlingit culture, language and traditional activities.
“A long time ago, families didn’t have culture camps. Instead, they had seasonal camps — deer camp, fish camp — to subsist and harvest those things in traditional ways,” explained Heather Lgeik’i Powell, camp director and Tlingit teacher with Hoonah City Schools. “Those types of activities are what we are trying to continue in this world that isn’t always set up for those timelines.”
“Haa Tóo Yéi Yatee” was the name of the camp, meaning “it exists inside you” in the Tlingit language.
“It’s to remind us that what we’re doing already exists inside of us,” Powell explained. “These teachings exist for us from an ancient time.”
At last year’s camp, Powell had posed the question, “What do you want your grandchildren to know?” The kids responded that they wanted their grandchildren to know their language, traditional art, song and dance, stay connected with their culture, respect the land, respect elders, and learn more about traditional food and harvesting.
To honor their requests, Powell gathered a team of Hoonah community members and cultural leaders from other Southeast Alaskan communities. They organized this year’s activities to include harvesting and processing traditional foods and weaving. The camp also interwove Tlingit song, dance and language throughout the activities.
Each day began with a circle to sing and dance traditional songs from Hoonah. Powell and the counselors also facilitated thoughtful discussions with the youth, challenging them with big questions such as, “What is leadership? Who is a leader in your life?” From the oldest to the youngest, each person in the circle responded. Many mentioned names of family members and even people helping out at camp.
The big circle dispersed into smaller groups for activities led by counselor-instructors. Jessica Seighoot Chester from Juneau got everyone moving and giggling with games and Tlingit language activities. Tlingit language teacher Daphne Khash’gé Wright, of Hoonah shared language lessons with the kids and supervised the careful processing of Southeast Alaska’s prized black seaweed. After drying the seaweed for several sunny days, campers of all ages flexed their muscles at the hand grinder, transforming the half-dried crumpled ribbons into bite-sized black popcorn from the sea.
Among the attendees at Haa Tóo Yéi Yatee were students of Hoonah’s Training Rural Alaska Youth and Leaders (TRAYLS) program. For the summer, the four youth in the program ages 17-21 trained for future work and careers by working in the countryside of Hoonah to learn about forests and watersheds, survey streams, and gain skills in scientific data collection.
“We were there to help the kids have fun and stay on task,” said Rebekah Sawers, the TRAYLS crew lead trained by the Student Conservation Association (SCA).
She shared a special memory from a day the campers explored a muskeg to harvest Hudson Bay tea.
“One of the kids came back and explained that you can only pick the fuzzy leaves and that she learned that from Ashlyn,” she recalled. Ashlyn Gray was one of this year’s TRAYLS crew and this was her second year helping out at camp.
TRAYLS students also built a smokehouse to be used at this year’s camp and beyond.
“It was nice getting to help in the blueprints of it and to help with the design,” said Nicholaus Treutel-Jacobsen, another TRAYLS crew member. “The smokehouse was a like a puzzle when we were putting it together.” The crew also harvested alder wood for the smokehouse and worked with the U.S. Forest Service to maintain the Kennel Creek Cabin site where the day camp was held.
Activities that involved plants as food and medicine included a beach walk and gathering zukudzi, or beach asparagus, which the campers harvested and cleaned.
“When you’re harvesting, you can’t have any bad thoughts in your mind,” shared Miguel Geisteen Contreras, a camp counselor and Hoonah middle school basketball coach. “Whatever you put into whatever you’re harvesting or making, whether it’s food or medicine, it’ll be exactly what you get out of it.” The importance of traditional foods offers value in addition to being highly nutritious. “We’re thinking positive thoughts when we’re constantly harvesting stuff throughout the summer,” added Contreras. It’s really uplifting for your soul.”
In the sunny clearing next to the cabin, groups of students worked diligently on their Chilkat and Ravenstail weaving projects under the guidance of ShgenDooTaan George of Angoon. “As a weaver I think it’s important for kids to see how much work it is and also to do something that’s hard,” she shared. “To struggle and then be successful is really powerful.” She and the other organizers hope that the experience will spark interest for students to continue learning these traditional arts.
This year, Powell challenged each camper to figure out how to continue to engage in traditional and cultural activities in daily life to keep them going. She assured them that they would have support from their family and community. “I want you to go home and share what we did here with your families. Tell them what it feels like to understand what Haa tóo yéi yatee means.”
The spirit of the camp was one of unity, family and connection. All adults were referred to as ‘grandma,’ ‘grandpa,’ ‘auntie,’ and ‘uncle.’ This included even volunteers who had come from outside the community and who were not Alaska Native. Every person was welcomed as family. They were invited to dance, sing, learn, and to collectively create a safe and loving space for all the kids that showed up.
Each day, Powell repeated powerful Tlingit phrases for everyone to take with them and remember. “Haa kusteeí áyá. This is who we are. Haa tóo yéi yatee. It exists inside of us.” She continued, “For those of you born into being Tlingit, it is something you’ve always known. For those of you who live among us and walk this land, it is something you can feel, something that becomes a part of you. And it makes it just as much a responsibility for you to learn as it is to share.”
Powell also instructed the youth on leadership. “You are our future leaders,” she asserted. She reminded the them about an often overlooked leadership quality. “Doing the right thing when nobody is looking. We do the right thing because it’s inside of us, not because somebody will notice.”
The last day of camp, additional volunteers arrived to help jar smoked salmon and beach asparagus. The kids packaged up Hudson Bay tea and seaweed. Weavers completed their projects, many of them proudly wearing their beautiful creations around their necks.
At the graduation ceremony, Powell began with a story about the resilience of the Hoonah people, who survived two ice ages. “Together, we are the strength of those stories and songs. We reinforce our connections and our relationships, not only with each other and the land but with our ancestors.”
“Our grandparents used to dress their grandchildren because they were the most precious belonging that they had. They would dress them in treasures that they had since time immemorial,” continued Powell. “Our grandchildren are our at.óowu,” referring to the Tlingit term for a clan’s sacred treasures. As each camper was dressed in a camp hoodie, Powell spoke to each child’s strengths. Her words also carried gentle reminders. “It’s not just you, it’s all those people behind you and all those yet to come. Remember that and gather the strength behind you.”
The ceremony continued as the staff, parents and family members were also dressed in a hoodie presented to them by a youth. After every single person present was acknowledged and appreciated, the circle was complete.
At the end of the ceremony, the beat of the drums began and the group of children and adults sang and danced, arms outstretched and voices raised to the sky. They exited, hands filled with gifts they made for their families and hearts filled with the gifts of the land and their ancestors. Haa tóo yéi yatee.
The camp organizers thank Icy Strait Point for donating the bus transportation, ANS Crew Camp #12, TRAYLS, Sealaska Corporation, Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, Americorps, Hoonah Indian Association, Huna Heritage Foundation, Sustainable Southeast Partnership, the Alaska Humanities Forum, the Fisherman’s Daughter, Ecotrust, and the many family and friends who volunteered and donated their time, rides, food and companionship.
• Jennifer Nu is a freelance writer in Alaska. Contact her at email@example.com. Ian Johnson at Hoonah Indian Association contributed to this article.