Kake Documents Oral Histories: High School Juniors Interview Village Elders for StoryCorp

Nestled in Keku Strait on Kupreanof Island is the Tlingit village of Kake. Around 600 people are lucky enough to call this community home. With its inspiring landscape, unique history and flourishing culture, many of the people who live here have interesting life stories to tell. In late autumn last year, equipped with iPhones, guiding questions, and a bit of curiosity, six inquisitive students from Kake’s high school set out to explore and share some of those stories.

These students participated in a program coordinated through StoryCorps, a nonprofit organization founded in 2003 that, according to its website, “has given more than 100,000 Americans the chance to record interviews about their lives, pass wisdom from one generation to the next, and leave a legacy for the future.” The organization shares interview excerpts during weekly National Public Radio broadcasts and on digital platforms.

In Kake, Jordana Grant integrated a StoryCorps curriculum into her 11th grade advanced composition English class. Students were taught how to conduct interviews and were shown how to use a smartphone recording application developed by StoryCorps. Six students interviewed community members on diverse topics ranging from Tlingit culture to life in the military. As part of this program, these oral histories were uploaded to the Library of Congress, the largest library in the world, where historians and the general public can access them. The full audio stories are also available on the StoryCorps website and can be listened to at SustainableSoutheast.net/KakeListens

If you or your school are interested in replicating a similar project and would like to access the free smartphone application and classroom curricula, visit storycorps.me.

The following are short excerpts from two student interviews.

Riley Davis and Dwayne Davies

Dwayne Davies is a retired Kake teacher who dedicated 20 years to the school system as a social studies teacher and athletics coach. The school’s gym is named in his honor. High School junior Riley Davis interviewed Davies about a life journey that led him from cleaning the ferry terminal in Wrangell to becoming a teacher and coach in Kake.

RD: Can you tell me a bit about your childhood and what you were like as a child?

DD: I grew up in Wrangell, and Wrangell was actually twice as big as it is now, which is really interesting. Wrangell had two saw mills, logging camps around and, fishing was a boom. I can remember gillnetters and other fishing boats tying up 7-10 boats in a line because there were so many of them! My folks and that town were industrious. You were expected to work, you were expected to work hard, but you were expected to do a good job and you didn’t complain about it.

I remember my mom working in the fish canneries and the shrimp canneries and going to visit her as a kid and dad on the shrimp boat and the gillnet boat and doing that as a kid. But as I got older, they changed their professions. My dad became the ferry terminal operator and the bookkeeper at the hotel, and my mom ran the hotel and I always helped them… I feel like I was spoiled in the extent that I had a great childhood, great parents who loved me but expected me to work and taught me, and I just have great memories. I feel lucky for all of that.

RD: Can you tell me about a historic event that had an impact on your life?

DD: I’m too young for anything to be historic! That is a tough question. Well, I grew up at that time (Vietnam War) and I was in Airforce ROTC and passed the officers exam and envisioned myself enlisting and going into the medical field at that time. The crucial historic event that changed all that was when they started bombing in Vietnam, which created then less people being drafted and enlisting, and my time when I was Airforce ROTC was cut in half and the only people they really kept were pilots that were juniors and seniors in college and the rest of us who were younger were basically phased out of the program, nicely put, and that hurt a lot. I felt I was denied because I wanted to serve my country and I wanted to go through and at the same time I wanted an education and I had a family to support.

The next thing that affected me too was also the reason I ended up in Kake. I was in two different schools that were closed down by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and that was caused by the Molly Hootch case in which villages were allowed to build their own schools. So up until that time, boarding schools were quite big in Alaska and Wrangell had the junior high school and Mount Edgecumbe had the high school… In January 1975, I took the job at the Wrangell Institute because I didn’t believe it would close down. But that school did close down in May. From there, I transferred to Mount Edgecumbe and I taught there and I coached cross country, wrestling one year, girls basketball and boys and girls track and field, and taught all the physical science and health. That was going to be my life, I loved it. I hardly ever went to Sitka, I lived right at Mount Edgecumbe and was involved all the time and then eight years later, they shut down too and that was a major impact on my life. Here was the second school that closed under me.

I got on the ferry and sent my application to all the schools in the Southeast. Being born and raised in Wrangell I wanted to stay in Southeast Alaska, and we stopped in Kake and we stayed at the New Town Inn and we weren’t very well off. We would go to the store and get groceries and go out to portage out here and build a fire and picnic and we barely made it by; we didn’t have a lot of money. But luckily there was one job and they basically had created it and I got the job and about two months later my wife got a job and so we ended up here and that was 32 years ago!

RD: What makes Kake Unique?

DD: I think what makes Kake unique is that in the hardest of times and in crises, the people come out of the woodwork. The people absolutely come out and show love, care and concern when you need it. They are there if you are doing good things and helping, they will back you and sometimes the people who have the least in this town give the most, and that is humbling. I think if other people could stand back in this world and see how the people in this town step forward who don’t have a lot and still do so much, I think we’d all be better off. So this town is really great that way.

Shaelene Moler and Ruth Demmert

For this project, high school junior Shaelene Moler interviewed Ruth Demmert. Demmert is her Tlingit language teacher and is an important culture bearer in the community of Kake. They discuss how the community has changed in Ruth’s life and what important life lessons she has picked up during a lifetime of learning. This is an excerpt.

SM: How would you describe the community of Kake to someone who has never been here?

RD: Well, it’s small, it’s got about maybe 500 people, maybe less. We have a high school and grade school and we are mostly a culturally-raised community here. In our community we have a lot of Tlingit with other tribes among us like the Haidas and Tshimshams, and lots of intermarriages. You won’t find malls here but we are comfortable with how we live. We do a lot of our hunting and fishing. A lot of us live off the land. Our community is proud of who we are. We all help each other when some of us are in trouble.

SM: In what ways has the community of Kake changed in your lifetime?

RD: We didn’t have a grade school back then. Now we have a Headstart program and a high school... I remember when the lights would go out ... when we had one power plant, now we have a big powerplant and we have electricity throughout the night now. Where we used to have outside games, now they have, what you call those game thingys?

SM: Video Games?

RD: Yes, video games that kids go home to after school. Where in the winter time, we would go sled and play winter games and sled on boxes, so a lot has changed. Our streets are paved. We have a high school where Tlingit language was once forced out of our people; now Tlingit language and culture is being taught in the schools and that is a big change.

SM: Do you think our culture is coming back? What are ways that we can improve teaching the Tlingit culture?

RD: I’ve worked with so many young adults already that are yearning to learn the culture, the language, so it started years ago and I know it is coming back because there are teachers right now who are teaching the language right in the classroom along with the culture. And, not just in Tlingit but in other cultures out there, the Maories, the Hawaiians, they are all doing the same thing we are and they show pride in who they are and this is what we strive for in our culture, being proud and knowing who we are and just having self esteem means a lot.

SM: What are you most grateful for?

RD: Every day we should always be grateful. I am grateful for my grandparents and the way I was raised, grateful that we can live off the land, grateful for my grandparents and who they were and how they taught me, grateful for the things I am still learning.

SM: Can you tell me about some of the most important lessons you have learned in life?

RD: You learn from the wrong things you do in life. I think everybody does. It might be something that hurt you for life, might be something that you can gain from, but there is always something you can learn growing up and the most important lesson I think I have learned is respect. Respect for yourself, respect for others, respect for what the land offers you. I think that’s the best lesson you can learn in life: respect for yourself, for others what the land offers you, what you can learn and what you can do with your life.