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Wednesday, August 25, 2004 - Page updated at 12:24 P.M.

Circle of learning: Tribal groups keep culture alive through education

By Jennifer Lloyd
Times Snohomish County bureau

Children in the Lushootseed-language camp perform a play in Lushootseed for their families and friends in a longhouse at the Tulalip Tribes Cultural Center.

The children's song [:30]
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Students, teachers and parents sit around a large drum, their vocals and staccato drumbeats reverberating through the Monroe Junior High School library.

The practice is more than just a lesson in rhythm. It's a weekly exercise in culture for these participants in the Skykomish Valley Indian Education program.

Members of the Native Spirit Singers belong to different tribes, but they're eager to learn this Plains Indian drumming as a part of the 24-year-old program in the Monroe and Sultan school districts.

The program, one of 65 such programs across the state, offers American Indian and Alaska Native students — preschool through high school — access to cultural and academic support through drumming, reading, tutoring and other activities.

The Skykomish Valley education program, serving about 72 students from 20 tribes, is primarily paid for by an annual federal grant of about $6,000, while a grant from the Tulalip Tribes pays for the drumming group. Skykomish Valley's parents organization also raises money for student scholarships.

The goal: to keep Native American students in school and aware of their culture.

"I think there's a lack of cultural understanding and how that translates into academics," said Mars Miller, the program's family-liaison coordinator and a member of the Chippewa Tribe. "We feel that maintaining identity and culture can help support students so they will stay in school."

Drumming in unison

The Native Spirit Singers practice. From left: Jim Roberts, Adam Wolcott, Mason Kenndy, Willard Hillaire, Craig Young and Dugan Flanders.

The Native Spirit Singers [:36]
Drumming teacher Willard Hillaire, a member of the Lummi Tribe, tries to create a positive atmosphere of learning and acceptance around the drum.

"What I try to instill in the young children is abstinence from drugs and alcohol, stay in school, stay away from gangs, maintain a healthy lifestyle, sports, education," said Hillaire, who has led the group for two years. "That's one of the requirements for singing around the drum."

Historically, Plains and Inland Northwest Indians used similar drums during healing ceremonies, weddings and other celebrations, Hillaire said.

The drum, made of buffalo and elk hides lashed to a cedar circle, is a tool the group treats with respect. Hillaire instructs the eight children around the drum to sprinkle tobacco on the surface before they begin practice.

"We feed the drum tobacco because we treat the drum like our grandfather," Hillaire said. "It's something similar to showing respect to an elder."

Hillaire begins by feeling out a song, chanting softly to remind the group of the vocals. Then they pick up padded drumsticks and begin pounding the drum, sending the dried tobacco bits dancing off its surface.

The adults sing powerfully, showing their teeth and straining their neck muscles. The students begin more tentatively, but by the end of the two-hour session, they're smiling and enjoying the songs.

"That activity brings their families together — it's a form of prayer also," said Craig Young, a Lakota singer and father of one of the drum students. "That is a reminder of the spiritual connection that everybody has with the creator."

Adam Wolcott, 12, a member of the Ojibwa Tribe and part of the Indian Education Program for the past four years, plays the snare drum and is learning to play on a drum set in addition to Indian-style drumming.

"It's just fun learning about your heritage," he said. "I'm a drummer in school, so it gives me more practice drumming in general."

Drumming isn't the only activity that Miller promotes during summer. She also runs a summer reading program for which students ask for reading pledges. If they read a certain number of books, they can earn money to buy books of their own.

Second-grader Aurora MacAvoy watched her brother Jeff, 14, playing in the drum circle. She has been reading Zoobooks magazines for a half-hour each day.

"There's not a whole lot of good Native American books for her age," said her father, Shawn MacAvoy, a member of the Samish Tribe. "Most of them that are out there are not true depictions of Native life. Even some of the books for people my age aren't true depictions."

As treasurer of the Skykomish Valley Indian Education Parent Organization, MacAvoy keeps track of the 18 monetary awards the organization presented to students over the previous year. Seven of those went to graduating seniors.

The parents organization, formed in 1997, raises money for the awards through garage sales and coffee sales at a Smokey Point rest area on Interstate 5.

Robin Lukone, now the president of the organization, jointly founded the Skykomish Valley Indian Education Program after reflecting on his own childhood.

"I had kind of a tough time growing up and it affected my school," said Lukone, a member of the Ojibwa Tribe. "And I just wanted to help other kids that have a tough time being Native American."

Academically inclined

The program that began in a single school in Monroe now covers both the Monroe and Sultan school districts. In addition to cultural activities, a Monroe-district staff member tutors Native American students who fall behind in their classes.

Arlene Gaeth, a Yakama Indian and student-outreach specialist for the Monroe School District, has worked with Cory Peterson, a member of the Tlingit Nation, to help him return to high school.
During the 2002-03 school year, 20 percent fewer American Indian and Alaska Native 10th-graders met standards on the reading, writing and math portions of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning than did the general population, according to the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI).

For the 2001-02 school year, Native Americans had the second-highest dropout rates in the state, after African Americans, and the lowest rate for graduating on time.

"There is a big push from Indian nations throughout the country to encourage schools to infuse culture and language curriculum into their system because our students are bored in school," said Denny Hurtado, the Indian-education director for the state OSPI and a Skokomish tribal member. "We say 'push out,' not 'drop out.' [The students] are being pushed out of the system because they're bored."

Hurtado, who's been developing an American Indian reading curriculum for the past six years, added that students might be more interested in education if classes included more Indian perspectives and hands-on activities such as drumming.

For the past two years, Arlene Gaeth, a Yakama Indian and student-outreach specialist for the Monroe School District, has tracked students, mostly seniors, having trouble in school and tutored them. She also helps provide information about colleges and work programs such as AmeriCorps.

"I get the students who fall through the cracks and have left the school," Gaeth said. "And I try to get them back into school."

Gaeth has worked with soon-to-be senior Cory Peterson since January on two online courses for math and English composition. Peterson, 17, stopped attending high school a year and a half ago due to low grades.

"I was having trouble focusing in high school — it was just too much," said Peterson, a member of the Tlingit Nation. "They felt that if I was capable of doing this, then I could go back into high school, which I will be doing this year."

Monroe School District Superintendent Bill Prenevost is a fan of the tutoring and the Indian-education program.

"I think there's been a resurgence or an interest in their cultural heritage, and this provides that," Prenevost said. "Anything we can do to involve parents in our program in a variety of ways is of benefit to our public education system."

Other local programs

Like the Skykomish Valley Indian Education program, the Edmonds School District offers tutoring to Indian students. Members of the Tulalip Tribes provide cultural programs.

Tribal historian Raymond Moses greets a procession of children from the Lushootseed-language camp entering a longhouse on the Tulalip Reservation.
Sisters Natosha Gobin and Michele Balagot co-direct a weeklong Lushootseed-language camp on the Tulalip Reservation for children ages 5 to 12. Lushootseed, once spoken by many of the region's tribes, has few remaining fluent speakers.

The Tulalip Tribes Lushootseed Children's Circle offers two free sessions that will serve about 115 young American Indians this summer.

With eight language teachers and several volunteers, staff members lead the children in games, songs, weaving and play-acting.

"It's important to offer the language as fun cultural activities rather than just a class that's offered in school," said Gobin, who has taught the language for four years. "It allows them to take pride because they're learning songs, they're learning traditional stories, and they're learning a lot about their culture."

At the end of the camp, the children perform plays and songs in Lushootseed for their families and other tribal members.

On Friday, the children, wearing T-shirts and shorts, filed into the tribes' longhouse singing a welcome song, their voices filling the air along with smoke from one of the fire pits.

The kids performed plays in Lushootseed about a skunk that stinks up a longhouse.

Only two elderly women on the reservation still speak the language fluently, said Raymond Moses, a tribal historian.

"Those little munchkins are the ones that are going to carry it on because it's easier for them to pick it up," Moses said.

Indian-education programs bank on getting children culturally and academically active, encouraging future generations of vibrant American Indian community members.

The biggest lesson the Skykomish program can offer, Lukone said, is "to go the red road, as you might say, the straight and narrow for non-Indian people."

Jennifer Lloyd: 425-745-7809 or

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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