Story last updated at 5/9/2012 - 1:17 pm
More than 100 students from three Juneau elementary schools waited in the Centennial Hall hallway, lined up and practiced a song they are learning quite well - "Dei heide" - as guests were welcomed.
The students filed into the ballroom in regalia, led by their Tlingit drumming and dancing teachers to the center stage.
Wooch.een. All together. This is the third year Goldbelt Heritage Foundation has sponsored the Wooch.een - a celebration of children through language and culture - through an education grant.
Elders from the Juneau area, Kake, Hoonah, Angoon and other communities attended.
The students from Gastineau, Harborview and Glacier Valley incorporate Tlingit culture either throughout the school day, in after school drumming and dancing programs, or a mixture of both.
Marie Olson opened with a story.
"It always delights me when we write stories to the children," she said.
She said young boys particularly enjoy this story because it shows of how one young man evaluates himself, handles ridicule and makes himself strong.
Olson said the young men would train every morning, running down to the beach and beat themselves with hemlock branches. They also would scale strongest hemlock in the village and try and break a branch off as proof of their strength.
One young man did not want participate. He would pretend to sleep instead, and the others would kick ashes from the fireplace all over him and laugh at him.
"That's how he gained the nickname 'Black-skin,'" Olson said. "He said, 'I don't like that, I'm going to make myself strong."
Eventually, one of the boys pulled up that big hemlock tree and they were to go off to an island and get the biggest sea lion.
"The strongest one said, 'I am the strongest; I am going to get it,'" Olson said.
And before he could, the sea lion flipped his tail and flipped the boy off the island. The boy whom others laughed, Black-skin, said he would do it. Of course, this garnered more taunting from the other boys.
He jumped from canoe to canoe and tore that sea lion apart - and his nickname changed to "Strong Man."
Olson said the story is recorded in the Alaska State Museum and there are two totem poles that show the "Strong Man" and how he tore apart the sea lion.
Dionne Cadiente-Laiti, executive director of GHF, said the mission of the grant is to "try and assure our schools meet the needs of our communities and families."
She said what has been accomplished with infusing culture into schools couldn't have been done without the Elders who go into the schools to help teach it.
"What our children did today when they danced in was opened that box of knowledge," said emcee David Katzeek.
He could see a lot of people with tears running down their face - with great smiles - because of what the children showed them.
Lyle James gifted drums to each of the elementary schools and the students drummed along with him.
"It brings us great joy to know our future will be strong," he said. "Goldbelt Heritage Incorporation presents these drums to Gastineau Elementary, Harborview, Glacier Valley. With these drums we understand. We are honored you are going to bring these drums to life."
"Grandma" Selina Everson, who shares Tlingit culture with Harborview Elementary students, said the performances brought smiles to the faces of the leaders.
"It is so thrilling to hear the children speak our language, which we thought was going to die out," she said.
Lance Twitchell, emcee, said that at the 1980 Sealaska Conference, Native leaders were wondering who, if anyone, would step up and carry on the traditions.
"My heart is filled with joy," he said.
Students in Shgendootan George's fourth- and fifth-grade class made drums from deer hides at Gastineau this year. They painted them, created a swatch of a blanket with a symbol representing them, and created a song. George Holly, local artist, "songster," and song mentor helped the students create their songs. Several performed their songs on Thursday - some were dedicated to family members, others told stories of adventures, gaining laughs from their audience.
One student said making the drums infused reading, writing, history, math and social studies into what looks like an art lesson.
Glacier Valley Tlingit Dancers, Gastineau Tlingit Dancers, TCLL (Tlingit Language and Culture Classroom) Dancers all performed different songs and dances before the classes danced out to "Yaa Ha Huwei."