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Dominic Alexander Benedict Vera, 58, died May 12, 2019, in Metlakatla. He was born Jan. 5, 1961, in Eugene, Oregon.
Tribal Scholars provides pathways for learning
Instructor Tiffany Pickrell shows Tribal Scholars high school students Kaeda Pickrell and Arnold Peterson an example of a upcoming project on Nov. 15 at the Ketchikan Indian Community. Staff photo by Dustin Safranek

Daily News Staff Writer

About a dozen high school students in the Ketchikan Indian Community-Ketchikan School District Tribal Scholars program listened to teacher Tiffany Pickrell explain their English assignment on Nov. 15 in the Tribal Youth Center on Stedman street.

Pickrell was showing examples of artwork the students could create to represent characters or ideas in literature they were reading.

“Has anyone ever done` any construction paper sculpting?” she asked the class. A few heads shook in the negative.

Pickrell held up a doll made of paper, sporting long strands of colorful paper hair.

“I read something about a mermaid one time, so there’s my little mermaid that I constructed out of construction paper,” she said.

“You want to spend your time doing something like this to represent your book, please go for it,” she said, grinning. “Mostly, I want you to come up with something creative that represents what you read.”

Social studies and math teacher Peter Stanton, who had taught earlier that morning, sat nearby, working on his laptop. Stanton also teaches geometry at Kayhi this year, and is the Kayhi Academic Decathlon coach.

Stanton explained how the program works, to cover all of the subjects the students need.

“Our responsibility is for our students to get their four core subjects, and so I teach social studies and math, and Tiffany teaches English and then we cooperate with (the University of Alaska Southeast) and Barbara Morgan to do science courses for dual enrollment and college credit with her,” Stanton said.

Morgan is an instructor of general studies at the University of Alaska Ketchikan campus. The Tribal Scholars students cross the street to the UAS Marine Training Center on Wednesdays for their science class.

According to information at kictribe.org, the goals of the Tribal Scholars program are: To engage Native students through personalized learning; increase testing competencies; create a learning atmosphere where relationships, respect and accountability are paramount; and to correlate education to students' lives and future aspirations.

At noon every day, the students take a bus to Ketchikan High School to take their elective courses, such as Haida language or art.

The students are enrolled in Kayhi, officially, Stanton said, calling the Tribal Scholars program “a school within a school.” There are 16 students enrolled this semester, and this is the seventh year the program has run.

High school junior Ronnie Pungowiyi, who describes himself as half Eskimo and half black, said he used to attend high school in Anchorage, then travel to Ketchikan after walrus hunting with family in the spring at St. Lawrence island, in the Bering Sea.

This is his first year in the Tribal Scholars program.

“This year, I wanted to change things up, I wanted to go to school here and see how this goes,” Pungowiyi.

When asked what he thought so far, he had a quick answer.

“I like it,” he said.

His experience at the “huge” high school he’d attended in Anchorage was very different.

“Up there, I didn’t quite like it. I didn’t feel they were doing hands-on. I only felt like they were picking a certain number of kids to talk, or whatever. But here, they give us all an equal chance to speak,” Pungowiyi said. He added, “The way I learn is hands on, and up North, I don’t think I was learning much,” he said.

He’d heard about the program from his mother, Marcie Fields, who lives in Ketchikan and works for KIC. He said he has cousins enrolled in Tribal Scholars, as well.

He said that his favorite part of the Tribal Scholars program has been the projects and outdoor field trips they’ve taken.

“So we’re not, basically, always indoors,” he said.

He described the most recent field trip they’d taken.

“The most recent one, we went up to the muskegs. We learned about all the plants and berries and the muskeg,” Pungowiyi said. “Before we went out, (Morgan) did a lecture on all the plants and leaves, and showed us all the differences and once we were in the field we had to identify which was which.”

He described another favorite trip.

“The one before that, we went up to Ward Lake again, and we did these samples in the little creeks there, and were moving all these rocks and collecting all the little bugs that are under the rocks,” he said, adding that the bugs were tiny and “weird-looking.”

In his spare time, Pungowiyi said he hunts and fishes as much as possible. He already has harvested two bucks this year. Midsummer, he hunted sea otters. Early on Nov. 15, he had just returned from a family hunting trip to Prince of Wales island on their seine boat, the Sovereign Grace.

His goal after graduation is to work as a hunting and fishing guide, and to eventually have his own business.

Tribal Scholars teacher Pickrell said she started teaching for the program in the spring of 2013.

She said the main difference between what she faces in her classroom and what the “fantastic” teachers at Kayhi face is one of scale.

“Those teachers go through hundreds of students a day. I have 16 dedicated students. I have the time and the ability to invest in them and know exactly what is going on with them. We have the time and the resources to assess each of our students,” she said.

One idea that Tribal Scholars program addresses is instilling the idea, in Native students, that a college education is possible. Pickrell, a Tlingit, spoke of the very recent disruption of culture in Native families.

“It’s part of healing that cultural rift that has happened, too,” Pickrell said. “In Ketchikan, there’s a lot of historical trauma with the Native community. We’re not even talking hundreds of years ago — we’re talking a couple of generations ago — grandparents were sent off to boarding schools.”

Pickrell further explained that this lodged the idea in the Native community that schools were authoritarian entities that simply sent down directives.

“With this being a culturally focused program, we want to make sure parents know that ‘We are with you, that seeing your child or your grandchild or whatever guardianship you have of this student, we want to see them successful,’” Pickrell said.

With that goal in mind, Pickrell said that honest and frequent communication with families is central to the success of her students.

She also said the science credit that students earn in Morgan’s class shows them that they can be successful in higher education, because they already have earned a college credit.

“It’s a nice stepping stone,” she said. “There are some kids where they say, ‘Yeah, I’m already going to college.’”

The most important aspect of the Tribal Scholars program, Pickrell said, is that students can learn their identities through the cultural framework of the program.

“When you can identify who you are, that leaves less of an opportunity of being marginalized,” she said. Every student in the classroom has an indigenous name, whether they already had one, chose one themselves, or were gifted one.

Sophomore Monique Clevenger is working through her second year in the Tribal Scholars program.

She said that last year, she left Kayhi for Tribal Scholars mid-year. Clevenger, who said she is Haida, heard about the program as a Schoenbar Middle School student. She had wanted to move to Tribal Scholars that year, but the program was only accepting high school students. When it was time to start high school, she said she decided to just try Kayhi.

“I didn’t really like it very much, it wasn’t for me, so then I decided to go here, and I do like this program a lot better,” Clevenger said.

She described the attributes of the Tribal Scholars program that makes it a better fit for her.

“A lot of culture. There’s a lot of things that we do, like we do language on Fridays,” she said. “We currently are trying to get involved in three different languages, Haida, Tlingit and Tsimshian. We do focus on Tlingit, mainly because both teachers know about it.”

Post-it notes dotting the walls of the bright, modern classroom are scrawled with Tlingit-to-English translations of words. Clevenger said the students pick random words out of a translation dictionary and write them on the notes, then stick them to areas of the classroom for a reminder. One clinging straight above the student desks, for instance, noted the Tlingit word for “ceiling.”

In her own family, Clevenger said she is the lone Haida, but they have Tlingit and Tsimshian members as well. She, her three siblings and their parents, Natasha and Kevin Clevenger, practice all three languages at home. The younger children play the card game “Go Fish” using Tlingit, for instance.

She also has a cousin in the Tribal Scholars program.

She said that Tribal Scholars not only is as rigorous as the program at Kayhi, but it is a better fit for her needs.

“We’re learning in ways that we’ll be able to understand,” Clevenger said. “It’s not just ‘we’re going to learn it in this specific way because that’s how I know how to teach it,’ it’s ‘if you don’t understand it, we’ll try to put it in a way that you will,’” she added.

“I really do like that, because sometimes I have my days where my brain isn’t comprehending any information, so they break it down for me. I just like the program,” she said, adding, “and, on Wednesdays, we go over to the college right over here, and we work on our science class, and not only do we not only get a science credit for high school, we also get a college credit.”

Clevenger expressed appreciation for the field trips the class offers.

“We just went to the beach and we just looked for sea creatures and we took pictures, and basically it was like a competition between everybody to see who could get the most.”

On another trip, the students used a camera to view the underwater creatures.

She also mentioned the muskeg trip, and the importance of learning what berries were safe to eat, and which ones were not, as well as other water and wilderness safety rules.

“There’s a lot more than I thought,” Clevenger said. She said she tested all of the safe berries.

She said, however, that she has harvested Hudson Bay tea from the muskegs with her grandfather since she was young.

Outside of class, Clevenger belongs to the Native dance groups “New Path Dancers” and “Haida Descendants.” She also attended the Alaska Federation of Natives convention in October, which she said she’d been looking forward to since she was in eighth grade.

Clevenger said she has struggled with reading since she was young, and that the reading program led by Pickrell has been beneficial.

“When we do English work, we read on our Kindles — we always read a book together as a class. She always picks books that we know we’ll be interested in, because a lot of us do have a hard time reading,” Clevenger said.

“It’s like, a safe environment, and she lets us pick the topic, and what we want to know, like if it’s going to be science fiction, or fiction,” she added.

For at-home reading, Clevenger said they are expected to pick books related to those they are reading together in class. They are assigned projects, like the paper sculptures, videos or powerpoint presentations, based on those books.

She said that Pickrell uses a random drawing system to choose students to read aloud in class.

“It’s breaking me out of my shell,” Clevenger said. “I’m more confident to be able to try and read.”

Clevenger summed up her experience in Tribal Scholars.

“The teachers are really understanding about everything. You can talk to them,” she said. “It’s just a really great program.”