PUBLISHED: 3:49 PM on Wednesday, December 13, 2006
Fall concert features raven story
Mendenhall River Community School

Photo by Amy Steffian
  Concert directors Victoria Johnson, left, and Melissa Mello are preparing students at Mendenhall River Community School for the play "The Old Woman of the Tides," which is at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 13, at the school gym.
Listen carefully in the hallways of Mendenhall River Community School and you may here a rhythmic chant rising above the normal clatter of chairs and pencil sharpeners.

Students are tapping their feet, swaying in their seats and even bursting into song.

This isn't nervous holiday energy, but enthusiasm for the annual fall concert - a dramatic performance of the Tlingit legend "The Old Woman of the Tides," which will be presented at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 13.

More than 200 kindergarten, first, and second grade students are preparing to enact this traditional story, which will feature signing, dancing and story telling.

Most of the singing takes place in the school's music room, where music teacher Melissa Mello and Alaska Native studies para-educator Victoria Johnson have spent the past three months working with students.

Johnson, whose work includes performing with the Sealaska Heritage Foundation's Naa Kahidi Theatre, and bringing Tlingit stories to the stage at Auke Bay School and the Juneau-Douglas High School, suggested incorporating a dramatic performance into the fall concert.

The project has filled the fall music curriculum since.

"The Old Woman of the Tides" tells how Raven, the cunning hero of many Tlingit tales, tricked the tides into retreating twice a day - providing people with access to the wealth of clams, mussels, sea urchins and octopus, which was once hidden beneath the waves.

Mello said the play is a great fit for Mendenhall River School.

"The story is about the tides, which is something all children in Southeast can relate to," Mello said.

It also gives students an opportunity to explore the history of their home and to better understand the diversity of local culture.

"What I'd like to see that they get out of the whole experience is a better understanding of the people that they live with," Johnson said.

"These stories still stimulate the imagination and provide moral guidance."

Preparations for the play are giving the students more than just an appreciation for the tricky Raven, they are providing lessons on Tlingit culture.

As they work on songs in the Tlingit language, Johnson describes the harvesting seasons, explains clan crests - the animal designs prominent in Tlingit artwork, and discusses the Tlingit kinship system, where descent is reckoned through women.

"Who am I in Tlingit?" a student asks. "Whatever your mother is," Johnson said. "If she's Tlingit you are Tlingit. If she is Irish, you are Irish."

Preparations also reached into individual classrooms, where Johnson helped students make their own regalia - vests, headbands, medallions and paddles to wear for the performance.

Support for this massive project has been extensive. Valley Paint donated supplies, Juneau artist Carol Garrett painted a stunning Southeast landscape for the set, and parents have volunteered to help with costume changes.

Mello said that her students have developed pride in the play, respect for their talents, and a great interest in Tlingit heritage. They are now ready to participate in the age-old tradition of sharing Raven's story. All they need is an audience.

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