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Coupeville 8th-grader wins new National History Day award

Coupeville eighth-grader Laura Harkins shows off her trio of History Day medals while spending time in the library to expand her already vast knowledge of Native American potlatches. - Rebecca Olson/Whidbey News-Times
Coupeville eighth-grader Laura Harkins shows off her trio of History Day medals while spending time in the library to expand her already vast knowledge of Native American potlatches.
— image credit: Rebecca Olson/Whidbey News-Times

Students like Laura Harkins exemplify the most dedicated side of today’s youth.

This soon-to-be Coupeville eighth-grader won the first-ever gold medal awarded for the Junior Web site category at National History Day.

This was the vivacious young woman’s second year doing History Day. Harkins’ project, titled “Dances of History: The Conflict of Culture and the Compromise of a Community,” was a Web site about potlatching in Canada. Potlatching’s turbulent history for the Kwakwaka’wakw Indians fit perfectly with this year’s History Day theme of conflict and compromise in history.

“Potlatching is a ceremonial practice. It’s basically their way of passing down their history, like our newspapers or records,” Harkins said. Her eyes lit up as she spoke about her thoroughly-researched topic. “Potlatches have feasting and dancing and all kinds of awesome things.”

Potlatches are a way of showing and sharing wealth.

“If they can give the wealth away that shows they are wealthy, unlike us who show we’re wealthy by keeping money,” Harkins explained.

However, in 1884, the Canadian government banned potlatching, said Harkins. The Kwakwaka’wakw Indians still put on smaller potlatch ceremonies, especially on discreet islands on stormy nights.

But in 1921, more than 40 people were arrested at a huge potlatch on Village Island. They were forced to choose between giving up all their potlatch regalia or going to jail. Most gave up their potlatch clothing and masks.

“The Canadian government wasn’t aware of the cultural sacrifices. The government wasn’t trying to be evil,” Harkins said.

In 1951, the ban was dropped. Just like that.

“They just left it out of the Canadian statutes. People were upset that it wasn’t more official after they’d gone through years of suffering,” Harkins said.

The hardest part for Harkins was remaining unbiased during her research.

“It’s like the Holocaust. When history teaches that it’s a bad thing, it’s hard to see the other side. But the Canadian government was trying to do what they thought was right,” said Harkins.

In 1979 and 1980, two museums, including one at Alert Bay, Canada, were built to preserve the returned potlatch regalia. Pieces include elaborate masks, whistles, blankets, copper plates that gained value every time they were broken and re-welded, and much more. Other pieces remain missing in action.

“Everything was worth a lot to them,” Harkins said.

Harkins’ journey of research was nearly as epic as the history itself.

“A lot of this research you can’t do here. You have to be up there,” Harkins explained.

So up to Canada Harkins went. She took a few days off school and traversed the cold and snow near Alert Bay and other areas in search of the very much alive history.

“It was incredible,” Harkins said, smiling at the memory.

She met many interesting people throughout her research. She’ll never forget seeing the tallest totem pole in the world or the huge section of hot sauces at the grocery store by Alert Bay. Everything she learned and her invaluable experiences only stoked the flames of her excitement for history.

“I was treated like a regular researcher, like I was in college,” Harkins said. “It was definitely a lot of fun.”

When it came time to create the Web site, Harkins organized it as a timeline by building a series of pages that can stand alone.

“It was really hard to do the Web site,” said Harkins. She switched back and forth between the often incompatible 1998 and 2003 versions of Dreamweaver, since both had their own attributes.

Broken links between pages caused the most distress for Harkins.

“It was torturous, laborious and annoying work to reset the broken links,” Harkins said with a sigh. She had to completely redo one page thanks to the troublesome links, not to mention all the work on the other pages.

But it all paid off when she took home the gold at the regional, state and national competitions.

To compete in the Web site category, students mail in their websites for the judges to view. On the competition day, students participate in a 15- to 20-minute interview with the judges about the project.

At regionals, the interview became a friendly discussion between the judge and Harkins. She wasn’t surprised to win there, since she was the only one in her category.

“When I got the award, the judge said, ‘you would have won anyways,’” Harkins said.

At state, the group being interviewed before her came out of the room looking shellshocked. But Harkins wasn’t afraid, as her “History is not for wimps” T-shirt will attest.

“Three judges looked at my website but didn’t ask many questions. It’s one of those things where if they don’t ask a lot of questions it means you have a good Web site,” Harkins said.

She most certainly did. Harkins placed first out of 13 competitors.

“That felt really good,” Harkins said with a smile.

In June, Harkins continued on to rock National History Day in Maryland. She and her family and fellow Washington state competitors enjoyed the sweltering hot week visiting senators and watching movies in their dorm rooms at the University of Maryland.

“It was a lot of fun,” Harkins said.

Harkins’ interview was on Monday that week and it went without a hitch. At the awards ceremony Thursday morning, Web site winners were announced last because it’s a new category. The pause before announcing the first-place winner dripped with anticipation for Harkins.

When her name was called as the Junior Web site category winner, Harkins nearly knocked the announcer over with an ecstatic hug.

Harkins received a gold medal and $1,000. Part of that money will go toward fixing her French horn, which she has been playing for two years. She plans to keep playing it through high school and beyond.

Harkins already has plans for next year’s History Day. The silent film about Native Americans “In the Land of the Headhunters” and photos by Edward Curtis inspired her to try her hand at making a documentary next year.

“It’ll be totally cool doing that research because I’ll get to go back to Alert Bay,” Harkins exclaimed.

If this year’s many successes are any testament to the future, Harkins will be making history again next year.

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