Landscape of snow-capped mountains, glaciers, and lush forests.

2020–2021 RWJF Culture of Health Prize Winner

Chickaloon Native Village Preserves Sovereignty and Culture for an Expansive Vision of Health


The Ya Ne Dah Ah School—Alaska’s first Tribally owned and operated, full-time school and preschool facility—opened in 1992. The school has profoundly shaped the lives of dozens of students, including its first graduate, Daniel Harrison, who completed his schooling there in 1998. Today, he’s the school’s chef, preparing meals for his community’s children just as home-cooked meals were served to him as a student. He’s also the music teacher, often leading the 21 students in Ahtna-language songs and traditional drumming.

Harrison is a citizen of Chickaloon Native Village (Nay’dini’aa Na’ Kayax’), a federally recognized Tribe with ancestral homelands in the watershed of Ts’itonhtna’, or the Matanuska River, about 60 miles inland from Anchorage. Founded by Chickaloon’s Clan Grandmother, the late Katie Wade, Ya Ne Dah Ah School became the catalyst for efforts to revitalize traditional culture and heal after a century of colonization and resource extraction.

Every aspect of the school and the rest of the Tribe’s work to improve the well-being of their people reflects a conviction that health depends on connections across generations, across communities, and to the land.

The Tribe’s work to nurture health through intergenerational connections begins with Ahtna language and culture revitalization.

A nurse practitioner examines a patient.

Nurse practitioner Sarah Ferroni (right) examines patient Brittany Reed (left) at the C’eyiits’ Hwnax Life House Community Health Center in Chickaloon Native Village.

A teacher works with students in a classroom.

Teacher Kari Shaginoff (center) working with students in Chickaloon Native Village’s Ya Ne Dah Ah School, in front of the school’s wall honoring Tribal ancestors.

A teacher shows students how to tan a moose hide.

Students at Ya Ne Dah Ah School in Chickaloon Native Village learn traditional skills, such as how to tan a moose hide.

“Every Ahtna word that I learn fills a missing part of my heart and it’s a healing tool,” said Lisa Wade, executive director of the Chickaloon Village Traditional Council, the Tribe’s governing body.

Building on Katie Wade’s efforts in the early days of Ya Ne Dah Ah School, over the past 20 years a younger generation of Tribal citizens has worked with elders and sifted through archival materials to restore and codify knowledge of their Ahtna dialect. Chickaloon Native Village has worked to make Ahtna language classes available to all residents through a local college, advocated for a federal language revitalization bill that was signed into law last year, and secured Ahtna-language street names in its affordable housing development.

Every Ahtna word that I learn fills a missing part of my heart and it’s a healing tool.

Lisa Wade, executive idrector, Chickaloon Village Traditional Council

“When we teach [the Ahtna language to] all of the people, then they all can appreciate where they live,” said Kari Shaginoff, the school’s language teacher.

The Tribe also has implemented a variety of initiatives to keep children safe and connected to their families and their community, for example by working to change state policy to preserve and increase contact between biological parents and children in the foster system, which sparked an overhaul of the training curricula for Office of Children’s Services case workers.

Chickaloon Native Village highly values connections across communities. Whenever possible, the Tribe designs its services—from its school to transportation to healthcare—to be available not only to its own 350-plus citizens but also the area’s more than 5,000 Alaska Native and Native American peoples and its broader non-Native community.

A key service available to all is the Tribe’s clinic, C’eyiits’ Hwnax or Life House Community Health Center, which opened in 2016 and offered primary care and urgent care services to many people in this remote area for the first time. The clinic focuses on personalized care and relationship building, and behavioral and mental healthcare are part of routine visits.

In another step toward healing, the Chickaloon Village Traditional Council set a policy to protect and restore their ancestral lands, honoring their traditional role as stewards of the local environment. An ongoing project since 2005 has been their work on Tsidek’etna, or Moose Creek, a salmon-bearing tributary of Ts’itonhtna’ and traditional center of Tribal life. The Tribe first removed coal-mining infrastructure to restore salmon passage to the stream’s headwaters, and later cleaned up and maintained a disused state campground that had become a dangerous illegal dumping area.

A teacher shows students how to tan a moose hide.

Chickaloon Native Village

This community’s story centers on restoration and raising children in ways that honor the strength, tenacity, and foresight of their ancestors and elders.

Strategic partnerships with other groups and agencies enabled Chickaloon Native Village to accomplish this work without having to make legal concessions that could have compromised its status as a sovereign Tribal nation.

“Sovereignty is important to us because it’s one of our peoples’ basic fundamental human rights,” said Chief Gary Harrison, chairman of the Chickaloon Village Traditional Council.

Winning the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Culture of Health Prize provides an opportunity to reflect on all these efforts, said Lisa Wade. The Prize “is a recognition to all the people that are doing all the hard work of building community here.”

A young girl tending plants in a greenhouse.

Recognizing Communities Working Toward Better Health

The Culture of Health Prize honors and elevates U.S. communities working at the forefront of advancing health, opportunity, and equity for all.