Fifty years ago, the federal government recognized the Kenaitze Indian Tribe as a sovereign nation. This anniversary year, the tribe is expanding.
It’s raising a new building on the corner of the Kenai Spur Highway and Forest Drive in Kenai to house its educational programming.
“The Kahtnuht’ana Duhdeldiht Campus," said Bernadine Atchison, chair of Kenaitze’s tribal council. "Which is called, 'The Learning Place.'"
Atchison said the tribe has outgrown its current spaces, like the Dena’ina Wellness Center in Old Town Kenai.
“When we built the DWC, we felt we had enough space for growth," Atchison said. "And it was in a couple years that we had already outgrown it. So I know this building looks really big but we are anticipating that there will be a lot of growth.”
The tribe has many operations, from healthcare to a wellness court to social services for its 1,700 tribal members.
It also holds educational programs for over 300 students, like summer camps, career counseling and early education for Native and non-Native families. Those programs are all spread out at the tribe’s buildings around town.
The new campus will bring all that under one roof. The 67,000-square-foot space will house classrooms on the main floor and offices and conference rooms on the top floor. There’s a basement that Atchison said they’re keeping open for future plans.
The building also has a semi-circular multi-purpose wing where the tribe can hold the Native Youth Olympics and meetings of up to 300 people.
That’s important, Atchison said, since they’ve outgrown the meeting space in the wellness center.
“So we wanted to make sure that this was big enough to hold our tribal members for our annual meetings,” she said.
The tribe is also putting in a commercial kitchen and a playground. And there will be a library where they hope to hold Dena’ina books for language learners.
Blazy Construction has been working on the building since last year. It’s set to be done in March 2022.
Atchison said the tribe started construction right before lumber prices went through the roof. Still, the price tag on the building has gone up. Funding for the construction project comes in part from federal grants, tribal funds and COVID-19 relief money.
The new campus is something the tribe’s wanted to build for a long time.
Atchison said there’s been more demand on its education programs over the years. The center is hiring more educational professionals to accompany that growth in services.
Other tribal programs are growing, too. The number of elders receiving lunches from the tribe jumped from 60 to 250 a day during the pandemic.
And the tribe is expanding its tribal court this fall, adding two 700-square-foot-courtrooms.
“One of our programs, the Henu Community Wellness Court, because of the number of people who participate in that, we’re having to do that at another site," Atchison said. "And so we needed to expand our tribal court to be able to hold these programs.”
The Henu Community Wellness Court is a collaboration between the tribe and the Alaska Court System that offers an alternative to those in legal trouble due to substance use.
Atchison said the program has had 13 graduates in the past three years with a zero percent rate of recidivism.