Tlingit-Haida fish camp teaches traditional ways

JUNEAU, Alaska — In Juneau, fishing is a hobby for some and a lifestyle for others. For 17 Alaska Native youngsters, fishing provided a way to get in touch with their centuries’ old roots — and get to know other middle-schoolers before classes start.

Goldbelt Heritage Foundation, a locally based non-profit focused on preserving and teaching Tlingit and Haida culture, put on its first ever middle school fishing camp last week, teaching kids 11- to 14-years-old traditional methods like gillnetting, trolling and setting crab pots.

John Smith, lead teacher for the week-long camp, said that besides being a great social opportunity, the goal of the camp is to teach children safe and legal ways to fish and to “take what you need.” He said he worries about a loss of respect for the earth in the younger generation.

“I really want to push that and teach our kids that,” he said. “Our people, many years ago, they did these things.”

On Thursday, the students were out on the water near False Outer Point, sinking crab pots and setting a gill net. Smith went out with the kids while camp coordinator Victoria Johnson and language specialist Martha Hotch set up camp on shore. When not fishing, students sipped hot cocoa and chattered with one another on the beach, nonplussed by the steady drizzle.

Thirteen-year-old Alex Eldemar said he signed up for the camp “to keep our culture going.” He said he also wants to learn how to fish in order to someday make money as a commercial fisherman.

Ivan Williams, 13, grew up fishing with his commercial fisherman dad, but said he can always learn more about traditional methods.

Eleven-year-old twins Kiara and Kiana Beierly said they joined the camp because it’s just plain fun. They especially enjoyed setting crab pots, they said.

Camp coordinator Victoria Johnson said the camp provides an opportunity that many urban Native children don’t get. Some of the methods taught last week have been used “since forever,” Hotch said.

“A lot of our students here in the big city do not get as much opportunity as a child from the village” to learn to fish traditionally, Johnson said. “We’re trying to bring a little bit of the village to the urban setting.”

Goldbelt Heritage has put on middle school camps on different topics for several years, Smith said. Last year’s was on civil rights issues surrounding the Native community, he said. This year’s camp is the first one that’s been hands-on, and although the camps are focused on Native topics, they’re open to everyone.

“To learn what your ancestors have done for centuries is a treasure,” Hotch said.

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