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Modern tools breathe new life into cultural education in Anchorage

Students practice hand measurements on wooden blocks as they prepare to carve a scale model of a Haida canoe. (Lexy Trainer/CITC)

On the ground floor of a nondescript office building in Anchorage, the garage door opens to reveal a vast room.

In some ways, this space looked like a run-of-the-mill high school woodworking shop. However, a few things stood out. Moosehide, rolled up like a tall carpet, leaned against the wall. A small box on the table contained a collection of walrus ivory scraps.

Gathered around a table, Benjamin Schleifman instructed a group of six Alaska Native high school students to carefully draw lines on a large block of wood.

“We don’t rely on Western tools,” he explained. “We plan to use them as needed.”

Schleifman is Tlingit and Jewish and has worked as an artist and educator for 20 years. On this recent summer day, he was teaching a group of high school students how to carve a scale model of a Haida canoe.

This lesson was part of a three-week summer camp hosted by the Cook Inlet Tribal Council. The Cook Inlet Tribal Council is a non-profit organization serving Native communities in the Mid-South region. Participation is free and open to all Alaska Native and Native American students. The camp is in its fifth summer.

The theme of Schleifman’s week of lessons was ‘Inherent Water Techniques’. For Alaska Native students, it was a chance to recreate the ancient designs of their ancestors. Along the way, they learned the kinds of things rarely addressed in high school history: native traditions, techniques, and a sense of place.

Students watch as Benjamin Schleifman demonstrates carving techniques. (Lexi Trainer, CITC)

Nearby, another Inupiak and Athabaskan instructor, Brian Walker II, entered information into a computer monitor attached to a large Hamming laser cutter. The students assembled a 3D model of him from mechanically laser-cut wood before beginning to carve the canoe.

“We use these machines,” said Walker.

His focus was on the present and future, not the past.

Right above the workshop, another student was in the middle of a week-long history camp. This course is a broad survey of Alaska Native cultures and is designed for students who live in cities and may have limited opportunities to connect with their heritage.

Dustin Moses, a senior at Bettye Davis East Anchorage High School, was a former student in the program and is currently teaching the program as a summer intern. Moses was Yupik, Inupiak, and European, grew up in her village on the Yukon River in the Mountains, and moved to Anchorage when she was six years old.

Another model canoe made of bark is distributed in CITC workshops. (Lexy Trainer/CITC)

He explained the difference between the cultural classes here and what is taught in high school.

“For me, I learned just enough to know what Alaskan culture is about,” he said. It was extensive.”

He pulled out the word “broad” as if to extend it statewide. He paused and added:

As the day began to draw to a close, the students gathered in a sharing circle. Their teacher, his Schleifman, put the students’ assignments into context.

“We indigenous peoples were scientists and mathematicians long before these words existed,” he said. “Everything we did could be replicated over and over again, and not just replicated, but improved generation after generation. I hope you can take it in, evolve it, grow it so that your children and your children’s children can do the same.”

A few minutes later, the students started walking home with their family and friends. The tools were all put away, but his laser cutter and part of his 3D printer kept blaring late into the night, ready for the next day’s work.

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