By Angela Gonzalez
In early May, the community of Tatitlek hosted the 22nd annual Peksulineq Festival, also known as the Tatitlek Cultural Heritage Week. Tatitlek is an Alutiiq village located in the Prince William Sound with about 70 residents. Youth from surrounding communities participated in activities celebrating the culture of the Chugach Region. In addition to cultural preservation, the Peksulineq Festival provides an opportunity for students, Elders, and instructors to share and learn Native arts, lifestyle, and the language of the Alutiiq people.
The first Peksulineq Festival organizers wanted to find an Alutiiq expression meaning spring time for the new event. Community members and Elders chose the word, Peksulineq, which literally translated describes the time when spring eggs are hatched, but also holds a meaning of a fresh start or new beginnings. The theme of the 2016 Peksulineq Festival was “Teaching Our Traditions – Yesterday, Today and Forever.”
The first day of the festival included workshops for youth ranging in age from preschool through high school. The workshops included beading, skin sewing, painting, kayaking and bracelet making. Presenters and instructors return each year to share cultural skills, stories and more. Because Tatitlek is a small community, workshops were held in various locations around town, including the school, teen center, and tribal office building.
Sharon Marchant taught participants how to make beaded rattles using traditional Alutiiq designs. It was her tenth time returning to Tatitlek to teach beading classes. She retired from Alyeska Pipeline Service Company based in Valdez and fell in love with the region. She now lives out of state but continues to attend the festival every year.
Diane Selanoff of Port Graham taught a language class. The students learned words and songs. Diane has taught a number of classes since the beginning of the Tatitlek Cultural Heritage Week, including fur sewing, dance and fish processing. Now her grandchild is attending the event. Diane says, “Kids are like sponges and they want to learn.” Diane enjoys sharing the Alutiiq culture.
Nick Tiedeman chaperoned nine students from Cordova. Nick says, “The kids enjoy projects, making stuff, skin sewing, basket weaving and subsistence.” Members from six communities come each year, including Cordova, Seward, Whittier, Anchorage, Chenega Bay and Tatitlek. Jessicca Hoover, another chaperone from Cordova, taught students how to make a moccasin pin cushion. She enjoys working with youth from the region. She says, “I love it. I think this is fun. I can’t wait for my six month baby,
Hawk to be involved.”
Patrick Kelly of Denali taught kayaking. He works for an educational non-profit geared toward youth programs teaching youth the basics, like how to hold a paddle and what to do if they fall out. For many students, it was their first time in a kayak. Patrick enjoys returning to Tatitlek each year and watching the students learn patience and other lifesaving skills. He says the instructors also learn from the students. Last year, he watched youth learning to gut a sea lion.
Millie of Cordova and Trudy Valenza of Seward have returned for their third and fourth year, respectively. They taught a skin sewing class for middle school students in the Kelly House, a teen center building. The students made purses and wallets out of sea otter and seal fur. Millie loves sharing the Alaska Native culture and lifestyle and visiting people. She says, “Elders are tickled pink that there are kids here.” Trudy first attended Peksulineq Festival to share tobacco prevention education, and over the years started helping with sewing classes. Trudy says, “I’m so excited to be here and watch and teach the kids.”
Russel Allen, a fisherman from Cordova, delivered 25 kings and 40 red salmon; a tradition for many years. Volunteers prepared food for lunch and an evening feast. Elder, Rose Lee Vlasoff, was the head cook. Rose says, “I love it – all the people.” Special guest speaker, Elizabeth Medicine Crow, President/CEO of the First Alaskans Institute (FAI), was put right to work gutting fresh king salmon in the kitchen. Some FAI staff joined her in the kitchen and helped with her presentation.
Elizabeth has attended the festival for the past several years. She likes the focus on youth and their dedication to the festival. The students make strong cultural connections, and learn traditions like beadwork and skin sewing. Elizabeth looks forward to a time when things like this are woven into an everyday curriculum. She enjoys how everyone donates and contributes their time to make the festival meaningful.
When Elizabeth Medicine Crow spoke that evening, she asked the children to share one thing they love about their culture. The ones who spoke up got a free t-shirt. Elizabeth said, “I love everything about our Native people. I love the way that we laugh together. I love the way that we eat together. I love the way that we work together.”
Valerie Davidson, Commissioner of Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, said, “One of the great things about coming from a traditional community is that your culture really defines who you are and your culture really allows you to be who you are as a person and not what you do for a job.” Valerie then shared a story from her grandmother about how the crane got blue eyes.
“No matter where you go, my grandmother taught me from a very young age, is that wherever you go, if you lead with love, you will never stand alone, ever. As long as you lead with love, you will never stand alone, no matter how hard things get.” – Valerie Davidson
Chief David Totemoff, president of the Tatitlek IRA council said, “We haven’t had anyone fail. Everyone helps. One of these days, you might be one of our instructors in our classes, because we will continue to make this happen.”
Roy Totemoff, CEO of the Tatitlek Corporation, said “Last year, I called some of you guys some of the toughest people that I know. This year, I’m going to call you survivors. You survived for thousands of years on a subsistence lifestyle. Only thing, it wasn’t called subsistence back then, it was called surviving. You survived the Russian era when they came over, you are surviving the United States when they’re here. You survived the 1964 earthquake. You survived the 1989 oil spill.” Roy went on to say the Festival was about two things, sharing and respect. He said, “Sharing with hunting and fishing and respect with Elders, neighbors, parents and environment.” In his opening remarks, Roy quoted the late Chief Gary Kompkoff.
“Our job isn’t done until we taught our children not only what our parents and grandparents taught us, but what we managed to learn along the way. The world is always changing. Sometimes our culture changes with it. Our basic traditional values will always remain the same. Always.” – Late Chief Gary Kompkoff
Byron Nicholai and Piiyuuk (Olivia) Shields of Toksook Bay sang and danced afterwards. Byron is Yup’ik and is well-known for sharing his songs on his Facebook page, I Sing. You Dance. Over 27,000 people follow his page. Byron is also a motivational speaker, a basketball player and plans to attend the University of Alaska Anchorage this fall. Piiyuuk was recently crowned Miss Camai and served as an emcee for the week. Piiyuuk is also a motivational speaker. Byron and Piiyuuk sang over 10 songs, including the blessing song, fishing song, I am Yup’ik – Alaska and more.
The whole community came together to make the week a success. Youth, adults and Elders came together for a cultural immersion experience. Instructors, volunteers and speakers from around the state keep the Festival strong by returning year after year with a common goal of cultural preservation, revitalization and celebration.
One Thing You Love About Your Culture by Youth
Gabe – I love coming out here and being able to kayak and stuff.
Dasha – I love fishing.
Liam – Music
Akasha – Artwork
Abby – Community
Tassy – Kayaking
Kevin – I like dinosaurs.
Isaih – Dancing
Brandon – Sharing our culture with other people
Natalie – I like meeting new people and sharing our culture.
Kylie – Salmon
Allison – Arts
One Thing You Love About Your Culture by Adults
Andrea Sanders (Yup’ik) said, “One thing I love about my culture is that no matter how far you go or what you are doing in life; when you come back home you always have a place; and there’s always a role for you to contribute; whether that is coming back home to berry pick or coming back to take care of an Elder.”
Monique (Tlingit), who works for Valerie Davidson, said she loves fishing. Heather Gatti (Tlingit, Haida and Italian) appreciates the food, Elders and feeling like family no matter where she goes in Alaska. Emily Tyrrell (Yup’ik and Inupiaq) said, “For me, my culture has really been my life raft. It’s helped me get through some of the hardest times in my life.”