Our Youth, Our Future

Written by The Nature Conservancy, Sarah Dybdahl, and Tis Peterman

Focussing on youth leadership in Southeast Alaska, First Alaskans Institute assisted in facilitating our time together by creating a space for youth, community leaders, local and regional organizations to share and discuss opportunities to address the wants and needs of youth, their communities and the surrounding region with special emphasis on catalyzing leadership behaviour.

Youth and communities leaders (or organizational representatives) participated from the communities of Kake, Hoonah, Kasaan, Juneau, Yakutat, Wrangell and Klawock.

Organizations in Attendance:

  • Alaska Crossing
  • Discovery Southeast
  • Forest Service – Tongas National Forest
  • Goldbelt Heritage Foundation
  • Hoonah City Schools
  • Huna Heritage Foundation
  • Organized Village of Kake
  • Organized Village of Kasaan
  • Sealaska Corporation
  • Sitka Science Centre
  • Southeast Regional Health Consortium, Kake
  • Southeast Sustainable Partnership
  • State of Alaska Community Economic Development
  • Supporting Emerging Aboriginal Stewards (SEAS)
  • The Nature Conservancy
  • Yakutat Tlingit Tribe

Culture Camps

The first day of our time together we had the opportunity to have a series of catalyzing presentations. To start, the community of Kake outlined the years of work they’ve spent developing and creating their Annual Culture Camp. Another catalyzer presentation was provided by the Supporting Emerging Aboriginal Stewards (SEAS) program based out of British Columbia. The intent of these catalyzer presentations was to educate participants of current programs that exist to provide leadership development opportunities and generate thoughts, ideas and conversations

What is important for our young people?

The adults and elders representing their communities and organizations discussed amongst ourselves questions including:

  • What is important for our young people to know?
  • What would we like to see in our youth?
  • What could adults do to assist in the success of our youth?

Key takeaways included the need for more opportunities for youth to get outside, connect with elders and community members, and learn about their culture.

Developing Leadership Programs over the next 40+ years

The youth then had the opportunity to spend time together thinking about and sharing their ideas amongst themselves, lead by First Alaskans Institute’s guiding questions. The start of their conversation was looking ahead into the future forty years and discussing where they would like to see opportunities for leadership development.

Key takeaways included the desire to see more opportunities to learn about culture in school (tools, names, language), the preservation of traditional language and practices taught by elders and more consistent opportunities for cultural events like trips, native activities and dance group practices. These types of immersive learning opportunity allow the youth to connect with each other informally in the region.

How do we make that happen?

The youth were encouraged to share their ideas and thoughts on activities and actions that would need to take place to make their vision of 40 years from now come to reality.

Key takeaways included broadening the youth’s support system by allowing for time to visit elders and involve language instructors to assist in all aspects of culture. From learning stories, purpose and pronunciations to preparing foods and understanding the words of songs and practicing dance, learning their culture in context help the youth feel empowered and whole; confident in passing on their learnings to the next generations.

What is possible?

Participants were divided into groups to identify what methods of developing leadership programs resonated as most possible, with one youth leading the smaller group discussions. Providing the youth an opportunity to have a voice in what happens in the region ______

Key takeaways included regional cultural camps to bring youth together from their expanded regions (ex: British Columbia), providing structure to the educational experience by replacing existing SEAS curriculum to allow for more active engagement in school and time with elders (through the outdoors or specialized projects), and the creation of safe space/networks for students leaving community for post-secondary education.

Circle within a Circle – Adults working with Youth

A select group of adults who represented their communities or organizations were asked to sit in a circle with the remaining participants surrounding them on the outside. Those on the outside were to be active listeners while those in the middle shared their thoughts and ideas. Those sharing imparted many barriers both personally and professionally, along with reasons they are dedicated the youth leadership in their communities.

Key takeaways included an appreciation and sense of pride towards the youth that have stepped up into leadership roles to help the community and strengthen traditions and language. By providing the opportunities for the youth to work with elders to bridge the gap of knowledge from the past trauma, helps them appreciate things happening in the community – the more communities are connected, the better. Listen – Learn – Do.

Reflections of Leadership Development Lists

Participants were asked to take some time to review all the thoughts and ideas captured regarding youth leadership. Below are thoughts shared after having time to absorb and process what had been shared collectively up to this given point.

Key takeaways included more programs in school and jobs in the community with an emphasis on sharing among tribes, mentorship/apprenticeship opportunities to bring elders and youth together, diversification and support for the leadership in the community and motivating the youth by recognizing their achievements within the community.

How can we move forward?

The last activity of our two days together was to share what each participant could do now to ensure the thoughts and ideas would become a reality. What would each of us commit to within our communities and organizations, both personally and professionally.

Key takeaways included opportunities for youth to connect with each other informally at culture camps or other events in the region by creating events for them to connect with each other, opportunities for youth to have a voice in what happens in the region and more consistent opportunities for youth to get outside, connecting with elders and community members, and learn about their culture (year-round).  The collective group continually returned to cultural connection as the heart of what they wanted to focus on. Getting youth outdoors, involved in science, or on career development paths wasn’t enough – this must always be integrated into the idea of cultural connection as a whole.

Trip Report from Community Exchange to British Columbia

As a participating member of the “Emerald Edge” program that is supported by The Nature Conservancy in Washington, British Columbia and southeast Alaska, Community Exchanges are facilitated each year to support shared learning between coastal communities on how common challenges to sustainability are being addressed by people throughout this bioregion. In addition to the photos included in the post below, click here to see the full photo album

I participated in an Emerald Edge community exchange to British Columbia along with community catalysts from Kasaan (Carrie Sykes), Kake (Loretta Gregory) and Sitka (Chandler O’Connell). Our friend Michael Reid of TNC Canada arranged the trip for us so that we could learn from folks in Vancouver, Bella Bella and Klemtu about their Supporting Early Aboriginal Stewards (SEAS) Community Initiative program, Coastal Guardian program, Qqs Projects Society and the Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department (HIRMD).

The four of us flew down on Sunday night. Michael suggested we stay at Skwachàys Lodge in downtown Vancouver. This is a “Social Enterprise” that I first heard about while taking the Community Economic Development course at SFU a couple years ago. The lodge is very nice and includes an excellent native arts gallery, as well as native art throughout the lodge, including unique installations in each room. Profits from the business are used to support an artist in residence program, many of whom have artwork in the gallery.

After we checked in at the lodge we had a very “Portlandia” experience while ordering a late night dinner at a local restaurant called the flying pig. It took the waiter about fifteen minutes to go over the beer menu, complete with descriptions of the aroma, foretaste, aftertaste, overtones, undertones, etc. that was fit for a stage. By the time the waiter got to Chandler she knew to head him off before he got started and just asked for an amber. Food was good (so was the beer of course).

Michael arranged a dinner between the SSP catalysts and Coastal Stewardship Network folks in Vancouver.

Michael arranged a dinner between the SSP catalysts and Coastal Stewardship Network folks in Vancouver.

We had nothing scheduled on Monday until dinner so we each had a free day to explore the city, visit with local friends or catch up on office work. We met for lunch at a Taqueria that was a favorite for the group that participated in the CED course in 2014 (especially Marjorie).

In the evening we met with Michael, Lara and Jana for dinner and had a nice meal while we learned about the Coastal Stewardship Network (CSN) and where things are at with data management systems. We identified many common interests and discussed opportunities for a community exchange between folks who work for CSN and communities in southeast Alaska.

On Tuesday we flew out to Bella Bella. We arrived at about noon at the ~ 1,200 person Heiltsuk village and immediately jumped on a Sea Taxi to head out to Koeye (pronounced “kway”) lodge. After running for about two hours we arrived at the camp where we were greeted by Larry (Qqs Executive Director) and Chris (Koeye caretaker). The kids were all out in the field so we immediately got a tour of the facilities from Larry, including a traditionally constructed longhouse.

This is a traditional style longhouse at Koeye that the kids use for dancing, singing and other activities.

This is a traditional style longhouse at Koeye that the kids use for dancing, singing and other activities.

After the tour and getting ourselves tucked into our cabins we sat down with Larry to learn more about the history of Koeye. It was an awe-inspiring story of vision, leadership and the right thing at the right time. We learned that Koeye’s origins, like the Kake Culture Camp, stemmed from Bella Bella’s interest in doing something about teen suicide in the village during the late 70s and early 80s. Larry was originally brought to the village to help combat this issue, which soon led to a program that dovetailed a “reoccupation” of traditional territory with a family oriented approach to reconnecting with traditional cultural values in several remote cabin settings. The Koeye lodge got its start by being next to one of the first 10 cabins that were built throughout the territory. After being acquired by the Qqs Projects Society and serving a number of years providing refuge and a place for families to heal and grow stronger together, the original Koeye lodge burned down. This tragedy served to further galvanize the growing circle of people involved in this good work and they were able to raise funding to scale this work up and build the village-like facilities we see today at Koeye.

Again, same scene as the last few shots but this time including the longhouse in the foreground.

Koeye longhouse near the sandy beach at the river mouth with SEAS students from Klemtu and Bella Bella returning to camp.

There are innumerable layers of empowerment work that Larry shared with us as part of the origin story of Koeye; from the way the land and original lodge were acquired and how the new lodge buildings were constructed using local wood milled in Bella Bella, to the restoration of the hereditary chiefs’ role in community governance and growing local capacity for the community to blend traditional ecological knowledge with scientific approaches to natural resource planning; and much more, too much for me to go into here. For the purposes of this brief field report I will add that about the time the lodge was being rebuilt after the fire there was a joining of forces with the newly formed Supporting Emerging Aboriginal Stewards (SEAS) Community Initiative and together they became a stronghold for cultural revitalization on the BC coast.

Oblique view of Koeye settlement from the drone at about 200 feet elevation.

Oblique view of Koeye camp taken from the drone at about 200 feet elevation.

I ended up missing out on the first night with the kids because I passed out early and did not wake up for dinner. Oh man did I need it too. I was woken up briefly a couple times after the dinner hour: the first time by the gleeful laughter of the kids as they played various forms of tag just outside the cabin door; the second time by the voices of the kids singing traditional songs around the campfire.

Our second day at Koeye was another sunny one, even to the point of being hot! The kids headed out early to explore up the Koeye river and go for a swim. We stayed back and spent some more time with Larry before he took us up the river in a skiff to do some exploring of our own. What a fantastic estuary! And a sockeye system to boot! Brown bear and wolf tracks mixed in with the kids’ footprints on the sandy beaches near the mouth of the river. Dungeness crab scurried away from the boat as we plied the sandy shallows on the way up the estuary. Mergansers, loons, eagles, kingfishers, etc. all clear indicators of the riches that this watershed provides to its inhabitants. Larry dropped us off in a lush meadow at the upper reaches of where the tide influences the river, right next to a Grizzly Bear rub tree and set of “hot-feet” (my favorite kind of animal sign!). If Larry had not won over my heart by then, the rub tree and hot-feet would have certainly done the job:) While we were stretching our legs in the meadow I took the opportunity to fly the drone and got some cool video of this lovely spot.

Kids having fun during a swimming activity.

Kids having fun during a swimming activity on the Koeye river.

The Koeye watershed was designated by the Heiltsuk people as a conservation area through the Great Bear Rainforest Agreement. There is a detailed management plan (developed by the Heiltsuk Nation) for this and other areas of ecological and cultural significance in the Heiltsuk traditional territory that is implemented and kept up to date by the Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department (HIRMD) based in Bella Bella. An overview version of this plan is linked in a paragraph below.

Looking down on Koeye from the drone at about 1000 feet. Note the lodge is situation in the second-growth forest in lower left.

Looking down on Koeye camp and watershed from the drone at about 1000 feet. Note the lodge is situation in the second-growth forest in lower left.

After returning from the boat ride up the river we had dinner with the kids. On this night, and over the course of the 3 days we spent at Koeye, I had conversations with young people, school teachers and SEAS coordinators that spoke volumes about the value of the SEAS program to them personally, and to the present and future vitality of their culture and communities. I was particularly struck by conversations I had with a few adults on the whale tail deck where they told me about how SEAS not only introduced traditional cultural practices to the young people in their schools, but also introduced these practices to many adults, including themselves. They described themselves as part of a lost generation; between where traditional cultural practices brought punishment from missionaries in the past and the cultural revitalization that is happening today.

This deck is shaped like a humpback whale tail. Nice spot to watch the sunset!

This deck is shaped like a humpback whale tail. Nice spot to watch the sunset!

We also discussed how well it was working to have kids from Klemtu and Bella Bella staying together in an environment where they couldn’t fall into the trap of isolating themselves by using their electronics or even their social cliques. We talked about how present day politics between Nations and within villages can undermine the work of cultural revitalization and recognized the power the Koeye experience could have in reducing future political conflicts by helping the young people from the different villages to form bonds of friendship at an early age. Here again the SEAS coordinators and community school teachers at camp described themselves as missing out on this kind of opportunity when they were young but also appreciating their chance to form similar bonds with the coordinators and teachers from other villages today.

Kids enjoying the feel of the drone's prop wash.

Kids enjoying the feel of the drone’s prop wash as it descends from just above them.

At Koeye lodge (and the Qqs Projects Society in general), the programs are guided by principles for youth education, environmental awareness and cultural awareness. On our third day, and the kids’ third day, the emphasis was on cultural knowledge. We started out with a leisurely morning around “the big house” with the kids playing games and me flying the drone. I also had a chance to walk the property (80 hectares) with Larry to talk about opportunities to integrate some terrestrial restoration activities as part of the programming there (the property was clear-cut about 30 years back). After lunch we all headed down to the longhouse for singing and dancing. We only had about an hour before the sea taxi returned for our departure but it was clear from watching the group learning to celebrate their culture together that the enthusiasm was sincere and that the whole experience was a kind of healing and strengthening of culture that also served to nurture future leaders who will carry on these traditions throughout the BC coast.

Shot of Chandler on the back deck of the sea taxi as we head back to Bella Bella

Shot of Chandler on the back deck of the sea taxi as we head back to Bella Bella

The ride back to Bella Bella was stunning, though a little choppy. We arrived in the late afternoon and immediately went over to the HIRMD office to meet with their staff. Kelly, the HIRMD Director, was a very gracious host and fed us dinner while we learned about the amazing array of programs and projects that they are currently managing. I was particularly impressed with their stories of restoring a local sockeye run, regaining access to herring eggs, the extensive geospatial mapping of traditional use data they have achieved, and the overall level of influence this office has over the use of natural resources in their traditional territory. Here again there is just too much to go into any detail (plus our brains were packed so full by the end of the night I am certain that I can’t remember half of what we heard) but please explore these links to learn more about the many cool projects they are working on in Heiltsuk territory.

We were invited back to the HIRMD office for a breakfast herring eggs and to share some of the work that is happening via the SSP that the Heiltsuk people may be interested in. We shared the Hoonah Native Forest Partnership, Path 2 Prosperity business plan competition, some good stories about salmon habitat restoration (a new interest at HIRMD), the success of the community carving sheds in Hoonah, Hydaburg and Kasaan, the development of the cultural tourism campus in Kasaan and overall how the SSP operates. Folks were grateful for the overview and were interested in doing an exchange to the north to learn more first hand.

Local school building incorporates native art in architecture.

Local school building incorporates native art in architecture.

At the end of our visit HIRMD Chair and Heiltsuk Chief William brought out a family heirloom; a Haida dancing apron that includes a Chilkat blanket woven in. He brought it out to show us because he knew that Carrie would be particularly interested in this item of shared heritage. While watching the group learn about the apron I was struck by how imaginary the border is, at least in some ways, between the US and BC; that in fact it is truly One Coast. Many nations have inhabited, and will inhabit the lands and waters of British Columbia and southeast Alaska – but a trip like this really drives home the basics about our connections to one another through the land and the sea, and our common interests in cultural diversity, youth education, wild food gathering and the awe-inspiring beauty of the emerald edge that we all have the great fortune to inhabit.

Larry's son recieved this apron, which incorporates a chilkat blanket, from his ancestors. We are at the HIRM office here.

Larry’s son William received this apron, which incorporates a chilkat blanket, from his ancestors. We are at the HIRMD office here.


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