Tyonek mural a picture of community involvement

 A three-part mural in Tyonek was completed in 2011, representing the community’s past (on the left), honoring their elders (center) and representing the future (right). The entire community collaborated on planning and painting the mural, in conjunction with the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. 

Painting a mural in Tyonek wasn’t simply a beautification project, though it is beautiful. It wasn’t just a skills-building exercise for the students, though they certainly learned artistic concepts and techniques. It wasn’t even limited to being a community engagement process, though that important goal was achieved, as well.

It was all of those things and a way to demonstrate, through actions and with a lasting, visual reminder, the respect that students and their larger community have for themselves, their history and their future.

The project started in 2008 with funds being awarded from the Alaska Association of School Boards through the Quality Schools/Quality Students initiative for a project that would enhance school climate in Tyonek. Painting a mural on a shop overlooking the airstrip, owned by the Native Village of Tyonek, was decided upon, done in partnership between the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District; AASB; the Tyonek Native Corporation; and Project GRAD, which facilitated the mural’s completion.

The collaborative nature of the project got everyone in the village involved, starting with community meetings to discuss what they wanted to paint.

“The mural represents a whole process of going through fall and winter monthly community meetings where kids, parents, elders and stakeholders talked about what symbols they wanted to use to send out the message of who they are,” said Bonnie Pierce, Project GRAD campus family support staff member at Tyonek.

The center portion of the mural, “Honor Your Elders,” was dedicated in 2009. Tyonek elder Chad Chickalusion (second from right), designed the sacred mountains seen in the mural, Mount Spur, Sleeping Lady and Mount Redoubt. The eagle holds a chain, Tyonek’s symbol of linking together the past, present and future. 

The community decided on a motif honoring their elders, with an eagle swooping over Cook Inlet, above a school of fish swimming toward their future, with the mountain range behind it.

Deciding on the image involved input from the entire community, just like the actual painting. There were 36 students and 28 adults who did the painting, as well as countless others who helped with bookkeeping, transporting materials, feeding the painters and other support work.

“I like to say it was painted as a community effort from the bottom up,” Pierce said.

Younger students drew and painted in the fish along the bottom of the mural, and teens outlined the eagle. Parents painted in the seascape in the background, and elders painted the tribe’s sacred mountain at the top. Above the panel is stenciled the tribe’s name in their own language — Tubughna “The Beach People.”

“The purpose was to increase community awareness and communication, to send a positive message to the rest of Kenai Peninsula that Tyonek people love each other and love the rest of the peninsula, as well,” Pierce said.

The community came up with solutions to challenges along the way. Safety rules prohibited students from being on ladders, so adults helped with that. Truck beds and a dozer became scaffolding. A water truck served as a power washer, since it wasn’t feasible to fly such a large piece of equipment into the village. The imagery also underwent tweaks and revisions along the way, to make sure all elements of the community were represented.

Tyonek middle and high school students take a break from painting the mural panel representing the future. A Native Youth Olympics logo designed by high school student Randy Standifer Jr. was used for the panel. 

Painting was completed in 2009, sprucing up the middle door of the shop. But there were still doors on either side of the mural that started looking pretty plain by comparison. So in 2010 the process began again, with community discussions about adding two more panels, one to the left symbolizing the community’s past, and one to the right symbolizing the future. The fish motif was continued through the other two panels, with kids getting to sign the fish they painted. The mural celebrating the past features a fisherman, a mother, a dog-sled team and a food cache sharing the beach with a bear and moose, and two beluga whales just offshore. In the sky above is the Big Dipper from the Alaska flag.

“The panel is to remember their past, representing the ancestors and traditions they hold dear to this day,” Piece said.

For the remaining panels, 27 adults, 22 students and 19 other Tyonek youth visiting in the village helped with the painting. But the youth, appropriately, got the final say in the design.

“The adults thought of doing snowsleds instead of dogsleds, but then the kids said, ‘No. One day we could be traveling in spaceships.’ It was great to hear that process of community engagement,” Pierce said.

The future panel is a dream catcher against a rising sun, a design created by high-school student Randy Standifer Jr., to be the logo of the Tyonek Native Youth Olympics team. Mural painting was completed this spring, but the beautification efforts continue, with a NYO mural painted on the outside of the basketball court at Tyonek School.

“The kids wanted to send a strong message out that, ‘We’re proud of who we are and where we are,’” Pierce said.