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Alaska students enjoy cultural exchange, fun in Big Cypress

Chenega Community School visitors enjoy a swamp buggy ride on the Big Cypress Reservation. (Courtesy Abena Robinson)

BIG CYPRESS – A group of students and staff from the Chenega Community School in the Native village of Chenega, Alaska, experienced Seminole hospitality and culture during a visit to the Big Cypress Reservation on March 6.

Chenega is a small pre-K through 12th grade school whose students are a mix of Indigenous, Thai and white. The Chenega Tribe (part of the Alutiiq tribal family) has lived in Alaska’s Prince William Sound for thousands of years.

The day began with a tour of the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, led by museum educator Van Samuels, followed by a gathering around the campfire near the museum’s entrance. Marcella Billie, the museum’s assistant director, welcomed the visitors and a handful of Ahfachkee School students who arrived with principal Philip Baer.

Abena Robinson, a museum education coordinator, organized the day’s events.

“Our hope is that the exchange of ideas, practices and knowledge will empower you and give you a deeper commitment to your identity, and hopefully create lifelong friendships,” Billie said.

Joey Cross, a Native Youth Olympics coach at the school, demonstrated the different athletic moves that are typical of an NYO competition with his students.

“The Seminole Tribe is very welcoming,” Cross said at the end of the day. “We Alaskans and Seminoles have many similarities. I have no idea when we’ll be back in Florida, but when we are, one of our first stops will be with the Seminoles.”

Before departing the museum, the visitors were given museum gifts and certificates, and Chenega School staff gave Ahfachkee School students T-shirts. The group then went to the Ahfachkee School for lunch and visited the school’s garden. The visitors also received T-shirts from the Ahfachkee School. The group was then treated to fry bread and softkee under a chickee.

“The [Seminole] culture reminded me a lot of my own culture. The way the people hunted, the way they dressed, their food – it was very reminiscent of Thai culture,” Henry Meyer, 15, said. “The highlight of the museum tour was the guide we had. He was incredibly nice and super friendly. He didn’t talk too much and didn’t spend ages on every little thing, which I appreciate.”

Twelve-year-old Charles Michener gave the Ahfachkee School visit “five stars.”

Toward the end of the day, the students and staff were treated to a swamp buggy ride, replete with a friendly encounter by two ostriches.

“The experience as a whole was educational and felt welcoming,” Rosalinda Jimmie, an Ahfachkee School student, said. “I could feel the love and passion for the things Chenega does and how they are just there for each other. It made me happy of how interested they were in our school and community as I feel they could relate.”

Joey Cross, a Native Youth Olympics coach, demonstrates the arm pull challenge with two Chenega youngsters. (Damon Scott)
Van Samuels, an Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum educator, talks about Seminole culture in front of the exhibit “A Fish Out Of Water.” (Damon Scott)
Van Samuels, at far right, joins students and staff from the Chenega Community School in front of the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum prior to a museum tour. (Damon Scott)
The group was treated to fry bread and softkee under a chickee at the Ahfachkee School. (Courtesy Abena Robinson)
Ahfachkee School principal Philip Baer, right, gives a fist bump to Wright Kashevarof, who is being held by his mother Melonie Kashevarof. (Courtesy Abena Robinson)
A pair of curious ostriches step up to the swamp buggy to say hello. (Courtesy Abena Robinson)
Damon Scott
Damon is a multimedia journalist for the Seminole Tribune. He has previously been an editor and reporter for digital and print media in Florida and his home state of New Mexico. Send him an email at