Avery Herrman-Sakamoto is 14 years old and, like most teenagers, loves music. But she says she isn’t listening to Kesha or Justin Bieber. “I listen to Joan Jett and all kinds of 80s music. I also listen to ACDC. That’s what my dad raised me on besides Tlingit music,” Herrman-Sakamoto said. She’s participating in PIA culture camp, a week-long workshop where kids make traditional native handcrafts.
Today about a half-dozen kids are making headdresses. Herrman-Sakamoto sews buttons onto a red strip of felt. “I want to take my time with this. I want to be able to bring it to Celebration and show it off.” Celebration is an event that happens every 2 years in Juneau, showcasing Southeast Alaskan Native culture. Herrman-Sakamoto says she wants to learn everything she can about her Tlingit roots. “We have a back story and it’s kinda nice to learn it. And the stories are great life lessons because I’ve learned a lot from them. It just stuck with me and I’m still interested in it.”
But she says her classmates haven’t always shared her enthusiasm for learning about Native culture, like when she tried to teach them a few words in Tlingit. They would tease her, pronounce the words incorrectly. “It really bothered me, and that’s why I haven’t brought it up to them since. But yeah, even if it seems like a little thing, a joke it can still hurt someone. Actions and words hurt. Both.”
She says as the kids in her grade are maturing, it’s starting to turn around. They’re becoming more interested in cultural identity. “Every year they’re actually realizing this is really important to me. I wanna show it off. This is what I can make. This is what my heritage has made.”
Dara Karo helped organize the event. She isn’t of Tlingit, Haida, or Tsimshian ancestry so she she finds Native people to teach the workshops. She says the class is about instilling a respect for Native traditions. “And also kind of experiencing the fun of making something hands on. And working together, helping each other, and creating something,” Karo said.
PIA culture camp is funded through a Johnson O’Malley grant which goes toward tutoring native kids and cultural enrichment projects. It’s open to both Native and non-Native youth. For Herrman-Sakamoto, the camp is an opportunity to learn, make, and share. “It teaches you a lot about sewing, history, your heritage gets mentioned a lot. It inspires you as well. You carry on that information with you through life. It’s kind of life changing even though it seems small.”
The week-long camp is finished for the summer, but PIA hopes to plan more cultural enrichment projects throughout the year.