"Bringing the drum to life" ceremony

Teachers Clint Shultz, center, and Alexis Gubatayao, right,  participate in a song and dance with children from pre-K, kindergarten, third and fourth grade classes on Monday during a "bringing the drum to life" ceremony at Tongass School of Arts and Sciences. The song was led by Kevin Clevenger, who gave two drums to the school during the event. Staff photo by Dustin Safranek

The sun came out on Monday morning as the entire Tongass School of Arts and Sciences student body filed outside to fill the school's covered recess area during an assembly held to honor TSAS artist in residence Kevin Clevenger and the creation of two drums.

The area was filled with the students' chatter as several community members and school officials prepared for the "bring the drum to life" assembly. At the center of attention were two drums created by Clevenger on commission by the school, representing TSAS and its students through Native artwork.

Clevenger, who is Tsimshian of the Raven clan, was approached to create the drums in early 2020. He has worked as TSAS' artist in residence for the past three years.

"He comes in usually a few times a month, and he'll work with kindergarten through sixth grade," Clint Shultz, a TSAS third grade teacher, told the Daily News before the assembly on Monday. "He also does Alaska Native artwork with our students. We commissioned him to make two drums for our entryway. These two drums have never been played before, so we wanted to bring up Kevin to honor him and his work with our school, as well as for him to be able to share the significance of the designs of each of the drums."

The event lasted roughly an hour and featured school officials and guest speakers, including Ketchikan School District Interim Superintendent Melissa Johnson, TSAS Principal Scott Huff, Tina Peckham of the TSAS Academic Policy Committee, KSD Cultural Coordinator Teresa Varnell and Clevenger.

The event opened with Schultz sharing information about his own family's Native heritage and delivering the district's land acknowledgement.

After Shultz, Huff introduced the guests to the students.

"We are here today to honor our Alaska Native artist in residence Kevin Clevenger," he told the crowd of masked students.

"I thought it was really important for the school to do this because we were gifted the drums," Huff told the Daily News.

Johnson told the students she loved TSAS, proclaiming "Go Thunderbirds!" before sharing remarks about Clevenger's work.

"I love Ketchikan, I love the kids in Ketchikan," Johnson said. "And I'm just proud to be here to be able to honor Kevin Clevenger, who I have known for many years. And it brings tears to my eyes to have him out ... to share his talents. I appreciate his children, and I just want to say thank you so much Mr. Clevenger. I really, really, really — just add one more really — appreciate your ability to share your knowledge with people."

Schultz and Huff, along with Varnell, who also delivered remarks to the students, led the crowd in TSAS' welcome song, which she gifted to the school.

Addressing the gathered students, Clevenger explained the designs that he put on the drums, saying it was an honor to create them.

One drum features male and female designs, as well as Thunderbird designs, representing the students of TSAS — whose school mascot is a thunderbird.

"It represents every single one of you," he said.

The drum also featured a Chilkat design that Clevenger noted was traditionally worn by royalty.

The second drum features Raven, Eagle, Killer Whale and Wolf designs, as well as the figure Mouse Woman. Clevenger said the designs "represent all of us."

The human designs on the drum represent the students holding each other and their cultures "up," Clevenger said.

"And that's what I see with this school all the time," Clevenger said. "Always holding each other up."

Speaking to the Daily News following the assembly, Clevenger said it took him three months of "off and on" work to complete the two drums. He estimated that TSAS asked him to create the drums in early 2020.

"This is awesome," Clevenger said of the event. "That's why I did the drums the way I did, because they'll hold up our culture and hold up each other so well, that I just felt it was important to make sure I put those into the drums to let them know I appreciate how much they do for our Native people and our culture and each other."

At the end of the assembly, Clevenger danced with the drums alongside his children, Kinyon and Kailani.

"It was an honor," Clevenger said.