Connections to Sitka through theater, dance and Alaska history

And finding a place to do what you choose in a world of options…

In the middle of June I delivered my daughter to the Sitka Fine Arts Camp at the historic Sheldon Jackson Campus in Sitka. I’ve always had a close place in my heart for this community when I was first introduced to the town during the commercial sac roe herring fishery that takes place in the spring. I have missed it and was grateful for an opportunity to return to visit some of the places in the community I love the most.

The Sitka Fine Arts Camp was started in 1973 to bring Alaska youth from across the state and some national students to a two-week event where participants choose a major field (dance, music, visual art or theater) and then engage in additional elective courses in the afternoon. The end of the program also provides a performance event and showcase for student art created during the camp.

During the weekend, students have the opportunity to explore local trails and beaches, kayak or just visit the local shops, bookstore and museum on the tourist-busy Sitka streets. Youth artists are housed in upgraded dormitories and have a common cafeteria.

As I started to write and reflect on Sitka, however, I saw some surprising news come specifically from the Fine Arts Camp that I want to share with the arts community of Homer. But first, a little more of my favorite historic Sitka art.

When I set out to write this piece, I wanted to mention a few other of my favorite places to visit in Sitka. The Totem Park Trail is part of many features offered to visitors with the Sitka National Historical Park. The poles in the park provide several different types of poles: house posts, frontal poles (typically used for a family house) and detached poles (placed in other places in the villages) for visitors to observe.

According to the National Park Service website, the park was originally conceived by Alaska Gov. John Brady in 1903. He toured coastal villages in Southeast Alaska requesting poles with the intention to keep them in a central location for Alaska heritage. Some of the villages that donated poles include Old Kasaan, Howkan, Koianglas, Sukkwan, Tuxekan, Tongass and Klawock. The poles arrived in Sitka in 1906. Over time, the original poles have been patched, painted, restored or replaced by new donations. Some of the newer ones are replicas of the older poles.

A brochure from the Park Service describes the role of the poles: “These are public records, displays of identity and clan pride. They depict folklore and historical events, in some cases are commemorative of an individual clan member.”

The 1-mile pole trail winds along the beach and into the woods, just past the Sheldon Jackson campus. It’s a beautiful, reflective display of Southeast Alaska identity and culture. It’s often silent, except for whatever the wind and waves are doing. But the trail itself is a soft path through the beacons of the poles, a way to find a sense of connection to so many years of Southeast Alaska history. I love the chance to see the humanities alive in a national park space.

As I was composing these thoughts on the opportunity to visit the culture of the community because of family participation in the Sitka Fine Arts Camp, I came across a July 11 article in the Alaska Beacon by journalist James Brooks, “Sitka Fine Arts Camp files rare immigration lawsuit in support of theater manager” that you’ll find in the Homer News.

Before the camp started this summer, the camp had Sri Lankan resident Denush Vidanapathirana hired in a position to run programs for the camp and in charge of the Sitka School District’s multimillion-dollar performing arts center.

With a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Theater Performance from Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, Texas, Vidanapathirana had been working under “a provision of immigration law that allows foreign graduates to spend a year in a practical training program,” according to a report from Sitka public radio station, KCAW, on July 12.

”Hoping to keep him employed for at least another three years, the camp worked with an immigration attorney to apply for an H1-B visa which covers nonimmigrants working in specialty occupations,” KCAW reported.

Director of the camp, Roger Schmidt, shared a few more thoughts with me.

“Denush just applied for the position when it opened. He had just finished his degree and was interested in getting a job in technical theater,” Schmidt said. “We advertised the position in different trade journals and different sources for folks. He saw it listed somewhere and submitted an application. He had a great interview. He was super experienced but he did have the training.

“He came in and did a wonderful job. For employment positions at the Fine Arts Camp we have a lot of young people who have just finished schooling and are ready to take on an adventure in Alaska. It’s pretty typical.”

Vidanapathirana’s petition for a visa was denied by the U.S. Department of Security California service center because their investigation of the case concluded that the position did not demonstrate the qualifications of a “speciality occupation,” according to the court filing paperwork provided to the Beacon’s Brooks. Brooks shared the paperwork with the Homer News.

“In terms of Denush’s story and what’s going on with that, a lot of news sources have been talking with me about that. We’re not trying to take on the federal government. There was an administrative ruling that was made and it’s something we want to address. We just want to show that we’re doing what we can,” Schmidt said.

This story took a funny turn for me.

When I started it, I was aiming for connecting to memories of my own, to revisiting Totem Park and strolling through the creature eyes on the poles.

Instead, it took me out of the office in other ways, reminding me of being much farther outside of the office when I had recently finished my own Bachelor of Arts and traveled to teach English and literature in Indonesia, where, thankfully I ended up with the support of staff and educators at the University in Padang, West Sumatra.

Often, I spent more time with students who were approximately my own age than other educators.

But, at a point when I needed critical assistance, I had a fellow teacher who took me into her home for care and eventually helped organize and support medical transportation. The faculty around me took extra care beyond what I needed simply as an employee of the university.

I’m happy to see and hear about extended support for this recent international graduate, if working in theater is where he would prefer to be right now. Even, or especially if it is in peaceful, artistic setting of Sitka, Alaska.