With the rich aromas of fry bread, Indian pudding, ham and moose soup permeating the hallways of Kenai Peninsula College, as so often happens when students of Alaska Native culture gather to celebrate, the final event of a November’s Alaska Native and American Indian heritage month brought more than a dozen together to eat, learn the Dena’ina language and watch a documentary.
The month has been peppered with cultural awareness events, including a fry bread social, a presentation on the Dena’ina people to one of the college’s English As a Second Language classes, a beadwork and fish skin basket demonstration, each designed to bring area students of Dena’ina, and others, a knowledge of the Alaska Native culture.
“Each one of the students made something and then they shared the Dena’ina word for it,” said Kenai Peninsula College, Kenai River Campus Rural and native Student Services Coordinator Sondra Shaginoff-Stuart. “Then we all ate, shared our words and then watched a movie.”
Dena’ina elder Helen Dick, of Lime Village, also gave a blessing over the food gathering. Dick is one of the few fluent Dena’ina language speakers left and has visited the Dena’ina language class, which hosted the foods gathering, to help the students learn pronunciation and hear the language spoken.
The documentary focused on the Oklahoma Indians and a type of gospel song that the group has incorporated into their own music and language.
“It became their own music and they were seeing correlations in the music with the Irish people and the African American people,” Shaginoff-Stuart said. “They all had the same songs, but they sang them a little bit different in their communities.”
Last year, the college held one event to commemorate the month, and this year’s events expanded exponentially, Shaginoff-Stuart said.
“It was a busy month, I’m kind of glad it can kind of wind down now,” she said.
The college will be offering several more Alaska Native studies classes during the spring semester including elementary Dena’ina II and Gwich’in I language classes.
Shaginoff-Stuart, who teaches the current semester’s Dena’ina language class, said the campus was trying to move toward offering more classes that could be used in the University of Alaska’s Alaska Native Studies minor.
For now, the small group who gathered on Tuesday evening has been enjoying its cultural explorations, Shaginoff-Stuart said. The foods gathering was organized by one of the students.
“They overwhelmed me,” Shaginoff-Stuart said. “I thought they were just going to bring a few things. They did it all. It really does feel like we’re a little family after this.”
Reach Rashah McChesney at firstname.lastname@example.org.