In Anchorage, modern tools breathe new life into cultural education

Students practice using hand measurements on a block of wood, preparing to carve a scale model of a Tlingit canoe. (Lexi Trainer/CITC)

On the ground floor of a nondescript office building in Anchorage, a set of garage doors opened to reveal an expansive room.

In some ways, the space looked like an average high school woodshop. But a few things stood out. Rolled up like a tall carpet, a moosehide leaned against a wall. A small box on a table held a collection of walrus ivory scraps.

Gathered around a table, Benjamin Schleifman instructed a group of six Alaska Native high school students as they carefully drew lines onto a large block of wood.

“Even though we’re not relying on Western tools,” he explained. “We are going to use them when appropriate.”

Schleifman is Tlingit and Jewish, and has worked as an artist and educator for two decades. On this recent summer day, he was teaching the group of high schoolers how to carve a scale model of a Tlingit canoe.

The lesson was part of a three-week summer camp organized by the Cook Inlet Tribal Council, a nonprofit that serves Native communities across the Southcentral region. Participation is free and open to all Alaska Native and American Indian students. The camp is in its 5th summer.

The theme of the week during Schleifman’s lesson was “Indigenous water technologies.” It was a chance for Alaska Native students to reproduce their ancestors’ ancient designs. In the process, they learned the sorts of things rarely covered in high school history: Native heritage, technology and a sense of place.

Students look on as Benjamin Schleifman demonstrates carving technique. (Lexi Trainer, CITC)

Nearby, another instructor, Brian Walker II, who is Inupiaq and Athabascan, entered information on a computer monitor attached to a large, humming laser cutter. Before the students began carving their canoe, they assembled 3D models from pieces of wood laser-cut on the machines.

“We use these machines,” Walker said, “not to try and test the technology and knowledge that we had as Indigenous people before contact, but rather showing them the ingenuity that we are as Indigenous people.”

His focus was on the present and future, not the past.

Directly above the workshop, other students were halfway through a weeklong history camp. The course is a broad survey of Alaska Native culture, designed for students who live in the city and might have limited opportunities to connect with their heritage.

Dustin Moses, a senior at Bettye Davis East Anchorage High School, is a former student in the program, and now helps lead it as a summer intern. Moses is Yup’ik, Inupiaq and European, and was raised in Mountain Village on the Yukon River before moving to Anchorage when he was six years old.

Another model canoe—this one made of bark—is passed around at the CITC workshop. (Lexi Trainer/CITC)

He explained the difference between the cultural lessons here and what is taught in high school.

“For me, I learned just enough to know what Alaska’s culture is,” he said. “In my freshman year of high school, it was just one semester of Alaska Studies, and it was really broad.”

He drew out the word “broad,” as if trying to stretch it across the entire state. He paused, then added, “Yeah, I would say a lot of the students really do learn here.”

When the day began to wrap up, the students gathered for a sharing circle. Schleifman, their teacher, put the students’ challenges into context.

“We as Indigenous people were scientists and mathematicians long before those words ever existed,” he said. “Everything we did, was able to be reproduced time and time again, and not just reproduced, but improved upon every generation. It’s our hope that the knowledge that you guys are gaining here and elsewhere, you will take and evolve it and grow it, so that your children, and your children’s children, can do the same thing.”

A few minutes later, the student started to trickle home with family and friends. The tools were all put away, but some of the laser cutters and 3D printers would keep humming into the night, getting ready for the next day’s work.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the canoe design the students were replicating. It is Tlingit, not Haida.

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