JUNEAU -- Sealaska Heritage Foundation at the end of March made apt first use of the clan house in the new Walter Soboleff Center: as a place to focus on children for a new three-year pre-literacy and school readiness program, Baby Raven Reads.
"It's fitting the first group in this building is the children, who get to grow up in this place," said an initial speaker, adding that organizers had conducted a cleansing and blessing ceremony that afternoon.
Music played in the background as families arrived at the room, which smelled of fresh cedar. Kids walked along the differently hued planks as if they were balance beams.
"This is really neat to use something (the clan room) like this," said David Katzeek Jr., there with Henrietta Soboleff and their months-old baby, Pricilla.
Chilkat weaver and storyteller Lily Hope told the story of Salmon Boy, and Gene Tagaban told the story of Raven bringing light to the world. As part of that, he got the kids -- and then the adults -- to say "I am the light of the world."
Liana Wallace spoke on how words are alive, and Victoria Johnson did language games, getting the kids to speak and sing basic words and phrases in Tlingit. Elder David Katzeek spoke first, encouraging parents to speak to their children -- in Tlingit or English -- even from before birth.
Anthony Jackson was there with his two-year-old daughter, Malia. He heard about Baby Raven Reads through a friend. "It seems like she enjoys it," he said. "It will be interesting for her to learn her culture as she gets older."
"We learned about it through my mom," said Nadja Kookesh, there with her two-year-old son, Torin Bear. "It's cultural based, so I'm excited. And it's a chance to see the new Walter Soboleff Center."
SHI plans a grand opening for the Walter Soboleff Center May 15.
SHI Education Director Jackie Kookesh said the event was the first of many over the course of three years. More than 40 families registered for the event; there's space for 50 in the program.
Kids age out when they turn six and age in when they're born.
"The focus is on getting kids ready for school -- similar to Head Start," Kookesh said.
SHI aims to have programs monthly, to provide culturally relevant, place-based books for all its child attendees, and to get them to look positively on reading.
Kids heading to school in the fall will have the chance to join "Gumboot camp," which Kookesh describes as "a kindergarten boot camp."
Baby Raven Reads will focus on preliteracy and language development for kids age zero to three, and school readiness for kids four to five, she said.
"We're going to have a little bit of everything," Kookesh said.
"One of the most valuable things taken away from us when the Europeans came... was our language, and with it, community," said David Katzeek. "What we're doing is rebuilding that community."
He spoke to his months-old granddaughter, Pricilla, in Tlingit, as she smiled and goggled at him. "You're Tlingit, and you're very smart," he told her. "You're Tlingit, and you'll work together."
This article originally appeared at Capital City Weekly.