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Kenaitze Indian Tribe opens doors to educational campus

Grant opening
Sabine Poux
Classes start next week at the new educational campus in Kenai.

Throughout Alaska’s history, cultural education for Alaska Native students has been not only discouraged, but systematically suppressed — stifling efforts to pass on language and traditions from one generation to the next.

Today, cultural education is a huge and growing focus for the Kenaitze Indian Tribe. And the tribe is hoping it can expand its programming even more now with its brand new educational campus in Kenai.

Liisia Blizzard, from the Kenaitze Tribal Council, said the campus would’ve made elders like her father proud.

"Education was so important to them, because many of our elders didn't have an education — maybe just 1st grade through 6th grade," she said. "So they can rest easy, and know that we have accomplished it."

The tribe has been working for the last two years on the new building, on the corner of the Kenai Spur Highway and Forest Avenue. It’s called the “Kahtnuht’ana Duhdeldiht Campus,” which is Dena’ina for “the Kenai River people’s learning place.”

The building houses classrooms and conference spaces with a large playground and obstacle course out back. The tribe held a formal dedication for the new space Thursday — less than a week before it’ll open to students on Sept. 7.

Bernadine Atchison is chair of Kenaitze’s tribal council. She said along with wellness and food security, education is one way the tribe can make sure its nearly 1,800 members survive and thrive.

The tribe already sponsors educational programming for over 200 students, including summer camps and its Head Start and Early Head Start programs, for young families and kids.

It’s hosted those programs and others from rented buildings in Kenai and Soldotna and from its educational fishing site on Cook Inlet.

"I think right now the significance is that we have all our learning programs under one roof," Atchison said.

She said the location of the building, itself, is important, too.

"When you go across the street to the National Guard, they have some of our ancient sites," she said. "But also we’re close to the beach. So it’s just a walk down, and you can see our mountains. So it’s a very culturally historic area."

Peter Evon, the tribe’s new head of tribal administration, said the 67,000-square-foot space is an exciting chance for the tribe to expand.

"We have a great kitchen, we have other aspects that we’ll be able to incorporate into the facility," he said. "Not only for the tribe, but for the culture, and preserving that."

Atchison pointed to a room in the back of the multi-purpose space.

"When we harvest a moose, we can bring it in there," she said. "And we have the windows, so people can watch, and learn. This offers so much more opportunities than what we had before."

The tribe has already started expanding its language programming. The new Dena’ina Language Institute is the latest iteration of an ongoing project to celebrate and revitalize Dena’ina culture and language, including language lessons for staff that it will host in-house.

"And right now, that’s becoming a bigger part," Atchison said. "‘Cause we had some language in our classes, like Head Start and early Head Start and Yaghanen. But now we’re actually getting ready to print some books that are in Dena’ina language."

Educators with the new institute have also been working on language resources for the public, including an audio dictionary of Dena’ina words and phrases. The tribe is also working on expanding its in-school programming along with the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, thanks to a grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

Correction: The tribe previously offered educational programming from rented spaces in Kenai and Soldotna. The workshops at the Dena'ina Wellness Center in Old Town are separate and will continue to take place there. The story has been updated.

Sabine Poux is a producer and reporter for the Brave Little State podcast of Vermont Public. She was formerly news director and evening news host at KDLL in Kenai.

Originally from New York, Sabine has lived and reported in Argentina and Vermont and Kenai.
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