Kenaitze Indian Tribe in Kenai is taking an innovative approach to drug, alcohol and tobacco prevention. In addition to more overt prevention efforts, like signs and education, the tribe offers culturally-relevant healthy activities through their Yaghanen Youth Center, located in Soldotna, including a moose camp in the fall for young men.
Yuzhun Evanoff carefully strips the outside layer off a large, burgundy leg of moose.
“This meat was hung - it develops a crust on it. So right now we are stripping it off so we can butcher this meat and give it to our elders,” said Evanoff.
Evanaff is Dena’ina from Nondalton near Lake Clark. He grew up in Soldotna and now works as a Youth Advocate for the Kenaitze Indian Tribe’s Yaghanen Youth Center in Soldotna.
This past weekend the group of young men went hunting on the Kenai through the Center and they were successful.
Evanoff shows 15-year-old Wally James how to peel a piece of white tendon off the meat.
James is a freshman at Kenai Central High School. Yup’ik and originally from Russian Mission, he moved to Kenai last year. He has been moose hunting before.
“It reminds me of when I go hunting and fishing in my hometown with my sister and family,” said James.
Standing in the large warehouse-like building surrounded by seven young men butchering meat at four tables, Yaghanen Youth Center administrator Michael Bernard says it’s not just about putting food in the freezer.
“The concept is that we are providing a safe, positive atmosphere where young people can come and learn that it is okay to be substance free,” said Bernard.
Yaghanen is a prevention and early intervention organization that provides a safe environment for youth.
The harvest and processing of the moose, Bernard says, is also a way to convey critical, traditional values to young men.
“The activities that we do have a cultural relevance to them. We are touching on several if not many of the cultural values, the hard work, sharing, teamwork and providing for our elders,” said Bernard.
Moose is a traditional food for Kenaitze Indians. The camp is free and open to all young men in the community –Native and non-Native alike.
The young men receive training on gun safety, knife-handling, butchering and food handling. They also learned about moose natural history and how to build survival shelters.
Bernard says they try to schedule the camps during school vacations and are working with the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District to allow students to earn elective credit for attending the camps.
Gideon Collver is a junior at Soldotna High School. The 16-year-old is not Alaska Native and says he had never gone moose hunting before. He says the best part was being in the woods and learning about respect for the animal.
“Kind of an inward respect. Treating it with respect. We were all fairly silent when we got it. Seeing that it had given its life so that we could have food. It gave me more respect for the Dena’ina and how their survival depended on something else’s death,” said Collver.
Kenaitze tribal member Sandy Wilson is a Youth Advocate at the Yaghanen Youth Center. She says the camp is also about building pride and confidence.
“Teaching our culture makes them proud of who they are and teaches them where they come from and so when we teach our culture it gives them a sense of pride,” said Wilson.
Wilson is also the mother of several children involved in programs at the youth center.
Her oldest son, 23-year-old Jonathan Wilson started attending activities at the youth center when he was in sixth grade. Now he’s a mentor in the program.
“I’m the oldest of eight and all of them are coming up through this program, so it is kind of something for me to watch them grow,” said Wilson.
In Kenai, at the tribe’s senior center, the young men deliver the meat to elders.
Kathleen Zaukar, originally from Sleetmute, has lived Kenai for several years. She says she does not have any moose meat in the freezer this year and she is happy to have some freshly-delivered from the young men.
“I got me a kidney,” said Zaukar.
A delicacy that Zaukar says she will eat fried.
“And it’s great that they teach them how to do that. Because that’s our culture, and if we don’t have our culture anymore then we don’t got nothing,” said Zaukar.
Next time, Zaukar says she’s putting in a request for moose ribs. Her favorite.
In addition to the moose camp, Yaghanen Youth Center hosts a fish camp, an archeology camp, a science camp and a construction camp. They also have after school programs that prepare students for Native youth Olympics and that teach archery, native dance, and drumming. All the camps and programs are open to Native and non-Native students alike.