On Friday morning, a group of preschoolers at the Ketchikan Pioneer Home listened eagerly to a former professional basketball player read a Native story and deliver a quick language lesson.
Damen Bell-Holter, who originally is from Hydaburg, from basketball in August 2017 and now works as the director of youth programming for Sealaska Corp. As part of his job, Bell-Holter makes many school visits and often reads to kids of all ages.
Friday’s reading began around 11 a.m., as elders and parents filled the Pioneer Home Great Room. The students, who had been briefly introduced to Bell-Holter earlier that morning, filed into the room to perform both a Tlingit and Haida welcome song for the audience.
The students were led through the songs by teacher Larissa Siversten and paraprofessional Sarah Huerta. One of the songs had just been taught to the students by Teresa Varnell, the cultural coordinator for the Ketchikan School District.
After the kids finished their songs, they took seats in a circle, surrounded by their parents and curious Pioneer Home residents. Bell-Holter towered above them in a seat at the head of the circle. He laughed and introduced himself as the students gawked at his 6’9” frame.
Bell-Holter read “Raven Loses His Nose,” a book from the Sealaska Heritage Institute’s Baby Raven Reads program. The Baby Raven Reads program has won many awards, and encourages storytelling and early childhood literacy for Native and non-Native children. The books published through Baby Raven Reads are Native legends and stories.
Before and after Bell-Holter read the book, he also taught the students words from the Haida language of Xaad Kil.
Bell-Holter patiently taught the preschoolers the Xaad Kil words for “yes,” “no,” “I don’t know,” “march,” “smile,” “stop,” “Hydaburg” and various body parts.
At the end of the lesson, Bell-Holter asked the students to close their eyes. As the preschoolers’ eyes were shut, he placed a new Baby Raven Reads book in each student’s outstretched hands.
After receiving their gifts — and presenting Bell-Holter with a framed piece of Native art — the students closed the event with a Haida song.
While the students sat down to have lunch with the elders and their parents, Bell-Holter explained to the Daily News how he got started with the Sealaska Corp.
He said it all started with basketball.
Bell-Holter played for two years at Mt. Edgecumbe High School in Sitka, and two years at Ketchikan High School. At Kayhi, he reached fourth in career points with 1,220 points in just two seasons.
Bell-Holter said that not many players from his community turn professional, even though Hydaburg is well known across the state for basketball.
However, after playing college basketball at Oral Roberts University, Bell-Holter was signed briefly by the Boston Celtics before playing with the Maine Red Claws. He went on to play for professional teams in Istanbul, Finland and Italy.
“I was literally about to go to Greece and play over there, but I just said I wasn’t happy anymore, and I decided to retire and went full-time with my work, and it took off,” Bell-Holter explained.
He officially retired from basketball in August 2017, and went to work with Sealaska Corp. in 2018.
“I said, ‘OK, I love working with young people, so I’m going to use the game to connect with young people,”’ Bell-Holter said. “That’s what I made sure I did. I built a brand with basketball.”
Bell-Holter hosted many basketball and culture camps for kids, which led to traveling around North America to speak to kids.
“They (Sealaska Corp.) saw that’s what I was good at, and they decided they wanted to bring me onboard,” Bell-Holter explained.
His official position is director of youth programming, which involves visiting many communities and schools. During these visits, Bell-Holter not only reads stories, but delivers keynote speeches, hosts basketball or culture camps, speaks at assemblies and develops workshops for students.
Bell-Holter travels throughout the state for his job. His most recent visit to the First City was for the Clarke Cochrane Christmas Classic in late December.
Frequent visits to schools are a big part of his work.
Bell-Holter said he regularly visits students in Hydaburg, Klawock, Kasaan, Kake, Hoonah, Angoon, Skagway, Klukwan, Juneau and Metlakatla.
He visits some schools as often once a quarter.
While reading at the Pioneer Home preschool on Friday, Bell-Holter said he wanted to leave the young students with a message.
“My biggest thing is I want them to go off and chase their dreams, and go off and get the skills they need and come back home and make the community a better place,” he said.
“As a kid, I wish somebody came and told me that I can be whatever I want, and I wish somebody came and told me that regardless of my struggles, I can go on and fulfill my dreams,” Bell-Holter said. “We don’t have enough of that in society, we’re not telling our kids they can be whatever they want, we’re not telling our kids it’s OK to struggle.”
Bell-Holter also told his young audience that respecting their elders was important.
“I grew up very grounded in my culture over there in Hydaburg … some people grew up around the culture, and I grew up in it. I was successful in basketball because I knew exactly who I was,” Bell-Holter said. “So that’s kind of the key messaging I leave with a lot of our kids around Southeast — and all of the kids I work with in general around North America — is it doesn’t matter where you come from or what your background is or what you come from, that you have to know who you are. You have to have an identity and you have to be connected to your home.”