Dozens of area high school students got a peek at life from the view of local American Indian tribes in an effort to bridge cultural divides.
They came Wednesday morning from high schools in Pendleton, Echo, Pine Eagle, Joseph and Imbler and joined their fellow students from Nixyaawii Community School at Tamástslikt Cultural Institute on the Umatilla Indian Reservation near Pendleton. Aaron Noisey, formerly with Nixyaawii but now a teacher for Echo, said planning for the program began in April in the wake of some racial incidents at school sporting events.
Rather than issue condemnations for bad behavior, he said, Nixyaawii and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation sought a different route.
“One of my things is,” he said, “if I don’t know, don’t belittle me, educate me.”
Noisey delivered that message to the students as well:
“Really, what we’re trying to do here is educate one another,” he told them.
Tamástslikt interpretor John Bevis led students on a tour of the museum. He presented the history of the Natitayt, the people, from their earliest days on the Columbia Plateau through the coming of the European settlers and the subsequent disruption of tribal life and deaths of tribal peoples. He called the Oregon Trail “the longest cemetery in America.”
That history affects every tribal member, he told them, who each day have to balance their lives as citizens of the United States of America and members of American Indian tribes.
Bevis said during a brief break that some of the students will take something away from the program and others not so much. But maybe sometime when they hear something about American Indians, this day will make them think.
“But at least they hear it,” he said.
Students also practiced with an atlatl, a spear-throwing tool tribal people once used to bring down game. Tamástslikt collection curator Randall Melton guided them in the use of the device, which uses leverage to launch the spear at a greater velocity, just as the sport jai alai uses the hand-held “cesta” to throw balls at more than 100 mph.
The goal Wednesday was to stick spears into a couple of hay stacks, which proved easier said than done. Melton asked students to imagine using the atlatl to bring down live, moving game. The upshot, he said, was tribal people had the time to put in the practice to become proficient.
Following a hot dog lunch, the students heard from Chuck Sams, communications director for the tribes, who spoke on the political history of American Indians. “Native American,” he said, is an ethnic group, but “American Indian” is in the United States Constitution.
“American Indian is a political subset of the U.S. population,” Sams told them, and that comes with consequences, such as laws that apply to American Indians but not to the rest of the population.
For example, he said, Oregon had a law requiring American Indians traveling through Salem to call the Capitol and let people know they were in town. Sams said he did that in the 1990s and when the staff finally asked why, he said because it was the law. That and similar laws allowed the government to track American Indians, Sams said. Oregon finally dropped the law in the early 2000s.
He also explained how tribal values inform their way of life. Western values, he said, hold that a person has unlimited wants and limited resources, while tribal values hold a person has limited wants and unlimited resources. That means wanting good air, clean water, abundant food and timber.
“This mindset is what has allowed us to survive and thrive on this land for thousands of years,” Sams said.
Kelly Foster is the associate director of the Oregon School Activities Association and also manages the state’s Class 1A high school basketball tournament in Baker City. She said Noisey told her about the cultural experiment and it piqued her interest.
“This was kind of the perfect spot to start this,” she said.
Educational opportunities for students to broaden their minds are good, she said, and this program could serve as a model for other schools, including in Washington, where Hermiston now competes.
Anika McDonald is a sophomore at Imbler High School and plays basketball, volleyball and golf. She had little knowledge of the tribal experience, she said, so the day was a boon to her education. She also said some of the little details of life on the reservation were interesting.
“I never knew they had sweat houses in their back yards,” she said.
McDonald said seeing the tribe’s way of living revealed differences but also plenty of similarities to build relationships on.
Noisey said that was the aim Wednesday, and the program could continue, involving other schools and communities.
Contact Phil Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-966-0833.