The Ketchikan School Board celebrated Native American Heritage Month during its Wednesday meeting.
It’s become traditional for the Ketchikan School Board to hold its November meeting in the Native village of Saxman, and to use that meeting to focus on concerns specific to the Ketchikan Gateway Borough’s Alaska Native population.
This year, the Board talked about implementing a new Native language program at the high school in cooperation with Ketchikan Indian Community. During public comment, Board members heard from many people who support that proposed program.
Tsimshian elder John Reese was one of the first to speak to the School Board.
“I am the last one in Ketchikan that can talk fluent Shm’algyack,” he said. “So, I’m in full support of having the school district teach the Native languages.”
The 94-year-old Reese has been teaching the Tsimshian language to a few others in Ketchikan, but he remains the only fully fluent speaker in the community. One of his students is Terri Burr. She told the Board that it is the responsibility of the tribes and tribal members to make sure their languages and cultures continue, and a lot of preparatory work already has been done; they’re just asking for a little help.
“We are not going to ask you to teach the language, you to save our language,” she said. “We will do that. We will do the heavy lifting. We’ll do the work. We’re asking you to open the door and let us in.”
The proposal from Ketchikan Indian Community is to start with a Haida language program, see how that goes and then add classes for the other two Native groups indigenous to the area: Tlingit and Tsimshian.
Benjamin Young is a heritage-languages facilitator at KIC, and speaks Haida. He told the Board that he first learned the language from his grandfather, and then went to school to learn how to teach.
He said that through his research, the Hawaiian model of revitalizing language and culture appears to be the most effective. That involves immersion schools, which have had the added benefits of improved graduation, obesity and suicide rates.
“I’m not asking for it to be a requirement, and I’m not asking for an immersion school – yet – but I do see an awesome opportunity here,” he said.
Young notes there are two fluent Haida elders in town who could help with the classes – Phyllis Almquist and Delores Churchill. And, he said, the proposed classes would be a great way for the school district to honor the Native culture of the area and help instill pride in its Native students.
Several others spoke during public comment in support of the program, including Sylvia Banie, vice president of the Organized Village of Saxman. She presented a letter from the OVS in support of the proposed program.
During Board discussion of the topic, Katie Parrott, education and training director with KIC, gave some details about the proposed pilot language program. She said Haida was chosen as the first heritage language to teach partly because they have Young available to teach the class, and partly because they have a curriculum ready to go.
“What we can provide is a curriculum and instruction that completely mirrors the current world language offerings in French and Spanish,” she said. “We have that in terms of the curriculum available for the Haida language and the level of instruction that we are able to provide.”
Parrott added that Ketchikan is one of the few – maybe the only – school districts in Southeast that doesn’t offer some kind of Native language instruction.
Parrott said KIC could start the program at Ketchikan High School as early as next fall. Board members expressed general support for the proposed pilot program, but wanted more details about how the partnership would work.
Superintendent Robert Boyle said his office will talk with KIC about what the school district would need to provide, and he’ll bring that information back to the Board at a later meeting.
The School Board also talked about restarting the Indian Policies and Procedures committee, which hasn’t met for several years. Board Member Misty Brown said that while the district no longer receives a grant that committee oversaw, the committee could address a variety of topics that affect Native students in the district.
Misty Brown and Board Member Glenn Brown agreed to talk about how to get the committee restarted, including recruiting representatives of the Native community.
We have a video of the New Path Dancers singing the Grease Trail Song, posted on our Facebook page.