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Native Pathways to Education
Alaska Native Cultural Resources
Indigenous Knowledge Systems
Indigenous Education Worldwide

Athabascan RavenAthabascan Winter Studies
The Dene'
Indigenous People of Interior

Kindergarten Unit

FNSBSD Alaska Native Education

 Appendix A

Teacher Resource Materials

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Ahtna Ät'n∂

Kutchin Köö chin'(Gwich'in) OR (Gwich in')

Han Hän

Tanaina T∂ nï' n∂(Denaina) OR (D∂ nä' ë nä)

Holikachuk Hä'li k∂ chuk

Upper Tanana Ta' n∂ nä

Ingalik In gal' ik(Deg Hit'an) OR (Deg' hit än')

Tanana Ta' n∂ nä

Tanacross Ta' n∂ cräs

Upper Kuskokwim Kus' k∂ kwim

Koyukon Kö y∂ kän


Pronunciation Key 

Ë as in ëven

u as in up

∂ as in "a" in ago

I as in hit

ï as in bïte

A as in fat

ä as in "o" in top

E as in pen

öö as in tool

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Dene' Potlatches

In Minto, Nenana and Tanana

by Charlie and Annie Titus May, 1991

 Alaska Native Education

What are potlatches for? There are many different kinds of potlatches given for different purposes. For example, when a child has their first catch of fish, rabbits, or any kind of animal the parents and grandparents put up a potlatch for them so that they will have good luck for the rest of their life. They have an older person come up to the child and pass on their life story so that the child can try to hold onto his luck.

 Another kind of potlatch is held for the first catch of the season. Long ago before there were hunting regulations the Dene' took animals whenever they were needed and as the seasons allowed. The first catch of the season was always shared with the entire village. If the first catch of the season is eaten alone, it is considered to be bad luck. It is done to respect others in the village. The ribs, backbone, and brisket are saved for special occasions like Thanksgiving, New Year, or if someone passes away.

 Another type of potlatch is given for a special occasion. A potlatch was always held on March 17th. Today this potlatch continues in Minto. Potlatches were also given to welcome home children who had gone from the village to go to high school.

 The last, but most important potlatch is held when a loved one passes away and they cannot forget them. So they decide to have memorial potlatch called "Qhotiit". This is considered to be the most important potlatch. The one making the potlatch saves many things, like mooseskin, fur, boots, mittens, hats, blankets, rifles, and many other items. At the end of the potlatch the gifts are given away. The strongest part of the potlatch is the love expressed through the giving of gifts. When the gifts are given, the people are giving strength to the giver of the gifts. In a way, the person giving the gifts is giving part of their love and grief for their loved one away, and helps the healing of the loss. Long ago they used to have this type of potlatch for 2-3 weeks. Today we have it for 2-3 days. This type of potlatch is the most important Dene' tradition.

 A very special song is composed before the potlatch, and it is learned by the people one week before the potlatch. Though the learning of the song, the people in the village know why the potlatch is being held. The special song is sung by the maker of the potlatch while tapping two sticks together. One stick is held in one hand while tapping it with the other. If the stick being held is tapped on top, it means that the person that the potlatch is being held for has passed away. If the stick is tapped from the bottom, it means that the person is still living. One of the sticks is burned after the potlatch and another one made when the person is going to make another potlatch.

 In all of the potlatches, at the end of the potlatch there is a celebration of dances and games for the honor of the one giving the potlatch. It is the people's way of saying thank you.

When the gifts are given away, children do not walk around because of spiritual beliefs. Right now we are trying to teach that again. Memorial potlatch is a very respected thing. No alcohol or drugs are allowed because of the respect. Young girls are not allowed to walk around in this special potlatch. In all potlatches, you cannot get up and go. You need to sit and listen to the speeches, because that's who we learn from. Elders discipline younger people if they do not listen. Many speeches are made in memorial potlatches. Many years ago the speeches were actually debates, and speech makers tried to outsmart each other using inferred meanings and riddles.

The Dene' have very strong spiritual beliefs about animals. Long ago the people believed the animals to have spirits, and so they are given alot of respect. The food served in potlatches were put on table-clothes and if crumbs were dropped on the floor, you could not step on them. Today, large rolls of paper laid on the floor are used to put your dishes and food on.

If you are invited to a potlatch, you need to bring your own utensils, like a plate, bowl, cup, and silverware. That way, we do not need to use paper materials and waste anything.

The food at the potlatch is always served according to the movement of the sun around us. The sun moves in a clock-wise motion. If a server offers you food, you cannot refuse a serving. If you are full or cannot eat a certain food, you still need to take the food. You can give it to someone who will eat it, or you can save it to take home and eat later.

When someone is planning a potlatch, they never say that they are going to make a potlatch. They let other people know by hinting, and letting certain people know to save their berries or the best part of their catch for a certain time. They never say what the potlatch is for. If anyone has a question about what the potlatch is for, they have to go to the potlatch to find out. Then when the singing starts, the opening song will be sung about the purpose of the potlatch.

Annie's grandfather Chief Thomas made many potlatches in his time.

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Last modified August 17, 2006