Kenaitze Indian Tribe opens new elder center, expands campus in Old Town Kenai

The Kenaitze Indian Tribe recently opened their new elder center near their Dena’ina Wellness Center in the heart of Old Town Kenai. Officials say it’s part of a larger strategy to restore the tribe’s original village site and bring better services to tribal members and other Alaska Natives and American Indians living in the area.

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Sharon Isaak (bottom right, grey jacket) leads members of the Kenaitze Indian Tribe's Elders Committee in a closing prayer after the group toured for the first time the tribe's new Elders building on Feb. 11, 2016. (Photo courtesy of Scott Moon with the Kenaitize Indian Tribe)
Sharon Isaak (bottom right, grey jacket) leads members of the Kenaitze Indian Tribe’s Elders Committee in a closing prayer after the group toured for the first time the tribe’s new Elders building on Feb. 11, 2016. (Photo courtesy of Scott Moon with the Kenaitize Indian Tribe)

The high-ceilinged multipurpose room has a wall of windows overlooking the Kenai River and the tribe’s traditional fishing grounds. The interior, in hues of chartreuse, tan and teal; matches the colors outside of the trees, beaches and the water that flows in the Kenai River. And that’s intentional, says Shayna Frankie the Manager for Tyotka’s Elder Center with the Kenaitze Indian Tribe in Kenai.

A remnant of blond wood from the old Kenai fish cannery serves as a mantle over the fireplace in the main room. There’s also a library, a commercial kitchen and offices. The building can hold over 100 and serves as a hub for transportation, meals, advocacy and activities for Alaska Native and American Indian people 55 and over. Frankie says the Center has needed a new space for a long time.

“In our old building, we got shut down because there was some maintenance issues and it became a hazard for elders to be in so we shut it down, moved out really quickly, jumped over there and started operating out of that center, Fort Kenai, and then we started construction on this one,” said Franke.

The Elder Center, which was built with funds from the Indian Health service, opened in March. It’s part of their development of the Kenaitze Campus in Old Town Kenai. That also includes the Dena’ina Wellness Center, which opened in 2014, and a social services building; as well their new tribal court. There’s also a new property they acquired in March that will soon house their environmental and security offices.

The Kenaitze Indian Tribe's Tyotkas Elder Center, pictured Monday, March 21, 2016, is located in Old Town Kenai, adjacent to other tribal operations, including an integrated healthcare. (Photo courtesy of Scoot Moon with the Kenaitize Indian Tribe)
The Kenaitze Indian Tribe’s Tyotkas Elder Center, pictured Monday, March 21, 2016, is located in Old Town Kenai, adjacent to other tribal operations, including an integrated healthcare. (Photo courtesy of Scoot Moon with the Kenaitize Indian Tribe)

Jaylene Peterson-Nyren is Executive Director for Kenaitze Indian Tribe. She says taking care of elders is a core Native value so the project was a high priority for the tribe.

I like to say that we are all elders in the making, when you really think about it,” said Peterson-Nyren.

Petersen-Nyren said it’s part of a plan for the tribe to be more proactive and visible.

“The Dena’ina people here on their land here on the Kenai Peninsula really became invisible in a way with all of the outside influence and other peoples coming in and what we’ve tried to do is really partner well with the community and to really show that we are here and I think that we’ve had a lot of success partnering in locally with the state and federal programs and services,” said Peterson-Nyren.

Peterson-Nyren said the development of the Kenaitze campus creates a sense of community that is both practical and also symbolic.

“Old Town Kenai was one of the original village sites. There were many village sites with many different names and locations around the Kenai Peninsula. This was a space that was primarily a summer camp but it was also where the tribal members had permanent dwellings and this was one of the original village sites where folks fished down in the dip net fishery,” said Peterson-Nyren.

Retired school counselor, Marylou Bottorff sits at a table in the main hall looking through a book of Alaska history, much of which she was present for. Bottoroff says she’s been coming to the tribe’s elder center in Kenai for about 20 years, in the older buildings, and she says she loves the new space.

“Well it’s very roomy, airy, very bright. The colors are – they’re easy on the eye. Beautiful library and there’s more new elders coming in now that have never been here before. I notice that they’re starting at $2 a meal – can’t beat that,” said  Bottorff.

Nearby, William Segura is deep into his crossword puzzle.

“I go by William most of the time, but here they call me Bill,” said Segura.

Segura, who once worked in the local fishery, says he was born 71 years ago, across the street from where the new elder center now stands, so it feels like home.

“We never had nothing like this before, you know. I like it. I like to visit. I’m what you call a blabbermouth,” said Segura.

He says he’s there for the socializing.

“We never had nothing like this before, you know. I like it because I like to visit. I like to talk to people,” said Segura.

The elders had always advised the tribal council that they would like to return to the site in Old Kenai, says Peterson-Nyren.

“We coined [a] phrase when we moved into the Dena’ina Wellness Center and the term in Dena’ina is naqantugheduł. Naqantugheduł means that the tide has been going out and away from us for many, many years – including our people and our culture; and now the tide has turned and is coming back in to us. We are coming back to ourselves in this space, in this time,” said Peterson-Nyren.

A grand opening celebration for the Kenaitze Tribe’s new Elder Center is planned for June.

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Daysha Eaton, KMXT - Kodiak
Daysha Eaton is a contributor with the Alaska Public Radio Network. Daysha Eaton holds a B.A. from Evergreen State College, and a M.A. from the University of Southern California. Daysha got her start in radio at Seattle public radio stations, KPLU and KUOW. Before coming to KBBI, she was the News Director at KYUK in Bethel. She has also worked as the Southcentral Reporter for KSKA in Anchorage. Daysha's work has appeared on NPR's "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered", PRI's "The World" and "National Native News". She's happy to take assignments, and to get news tips, which are best sent via email. Daysha became a journalist because she believes in the power of storytelling. Stories connect us and they help us make sense of our world. They shed light on injustice and they comfort us in troubled times. She got into public broadcasting because it seems to fulfill the intention of the 4th Estate and to most effectively apply the freedom of the press granted to us through the Constitution. She feels that public radio has a special way of moving people emotionally through sound, taking them to remote places, introducing them to people they would not otherwise meet and compelling them to think about issues they might ordinarily overlook.