Project: Hnaa tsesi Workshop and Gathering Project
Grantee: Bunnell Street Arts Center
Story and photos: Melissa Shaginoff

The Hnaa tsesi Workshop and Gathering brought 22 Elders and youth from the Ahtna villages of Gulkana, Tazlina and Copper Center together for storytelling, workshop, and potlatch. In addition to this gathering, three Dene objects including a moose hide jacket, a sheep horn ladle, and a hnaa tsesi (roll-up sewing bag) were borrowed from a private collection in Anchorage and traveled to the villages.

Over a potlatch meal and examination of these objects, the Elders had the opportunity to share with the youth stories about each object, especially the hnaa tsesi. They shared that both women and men had these bags. That they were once filled with tools to sew, bead, and sustain their life-ways. One elder shared that even the wax in the hnaa tsesi, used to prepare thread for sewing, could also provide sustenance in times of famine. 

Together, Elders and youth examined the hnaa tsesi. Looking at the materials, design, and beading, the youth set to construct their own bag with the guidance of the Elders, my art assistant, and myself. But beyond the construction of the hnaa tsesi was discussion of Ahtna values of preparedness, flexibility, resilience, and survival. This discussion then shifted to an exchange between Elders and youth describing the importance of seeking and nurturing these values in our current lives and community. If this workshop and gathering would to be repeated, I would have consulted the community in an in-person interview asking what specific objects they would like to see and what workshop they would like taught. We did have the opportunity to potlatch where we gifted all the Elders with blankets and honoraria. I believe this action left an impression of transparency, that our purpose in both workshop and gathering was only to support the community in facilitation and, in Dene tradition, lead with the intention to know and understand each other.