Communities come together to form a team that honors Dena’ina values
“As teachers, you don’t often see the fruits of the labor you put into the children you work with,” lamented Michael Bernard. But as the Junior and Senior Native Youth Olympics (NYO) coach for the Yaghanen Youth program, Michael has been able to watch dozens of kids grow into great athletes — and great people.
The Ggugguyni NYO team is made up of youth from both the Kenaitze Indian Tribe and the Salamatof Tribal Council from the Kenai area. NYO is just one component of Yaghanen (“safe place”), which offers young people an opportunity to develop life skills, learn culture, make friends, and stay on track academically.
“For the younger kids, I think just want to be there with their friends and have fun,” Michael admitted. “For us, it’s a greater motivation: Our programs are drug, alcohol, and tobacco prevention, and so we have the motivation to keep the kids in a healthy activity that’s positive and culturally-based.”
Culture stays at the center of what the Yaghanen youth do. When they stretch before activities, they count to ten in Dena’ina. And they know the traditions behind their favorite NYO events, like the One-Foot High Kick and the Indian Stick Pull (which the junior athletes seem to particularly enjoy).
Just because NYO and Yaghanen are a celebration of Alaska Native culture, though, that doesn’t mean anyone gets left out.
“We accept all kids; they don’t have to be Native,” Michael explained. “We’re all learning Dena’ina culture, and there are values we teach that are universal, so I think we’re just reinforcing in our kids the values of our ancestors. It’s important that we see other people’s cultures are just as important as our own, too.”
The junior team has about 70 athletes who represent schools all over the Kenai area — something Michael believes helps make his team, and his community, stronger. “I think it brings a whole new dynamic. When you pull kids in from different schools it’s really nice because the whole community comes together.”
The team has had lots of successes, but most notably, Michael said, was when one of their male athletes took home the sportsmanship award at the Kenai winter games.
“That was really encouraging for us — that our kids are picking up what we’re trying to impress upon them. Not everybody can be number one, but as far as pulling together and strengthening each other by strengthening yourself and trying to better yourself and beat your own personal records, that makes the whole team strong. And encouraging each other to do better is something that lifts us all up.”