Nixyaawii students honor elders

Cecelia Bearchum eats with fellow elders Inez Reves and Eva Watchman while Nixyaawii Community School students presented projects on tribal elders Monday at Tamastslikt Cultural Institute in Mission.

After months of preparation - and a bit of prompting and encouraging from teachers - students at Nixyaawii Community School debuted their finished elders projects Monday at Tamastslikt Cultural Institute.

A number of family and community members attended the event, gathering in the multi-purpose room where each group of students took turns summarizing the biographies of their featured elders, whom they were required to interview on three occasions.

"By discovering small parts of remembrances of our elders, you became my teacher today," tribal cultural spokesman Thomas MorningOwl told the students before leading them in a final native-language song. "As you give out knowledge ... you give something that can never be taken away."

The student projects incorporated several components, including audio presentations for juniors and seniors. Two groups also edited a short video of their interviews sessions. And each group set up a poster display, showing a timeline, family tree and brief biography of the elder.

While the project bridged generations for all participants, for some of the students, it also afforded an opportunity to connect with a family member.

Junior Cekais Ganuelos, for example, interviewed her maternal grandmother, Linnea Sampson, who grew up during World War II and also maintained the home front through the Korean and Vietnam wars while the men in her life went off to fight.

Sampson's biography told of her sadness when her brothers returned home, never the same.

"She was kind of open about what she wanted to tell me about," Ganuelos said, explaining how some stories were told with tears. "It was new for me to see her that way."

Sampson, as with most of the other featured elders, brought up memories of attending the old mission schools, such as Chemewa in Salem, a place where American Indian children were assimilated and punished for speaking their native language. Sampson's bio recalled a particular memory of one boy being dragged out of class by his braids.

"She couldn't do anything about it," Ganuelos said. "She just had to sit there."

Cekais's mother Lisa attended the event Monday and saw first-hand her daughter's finished work, visibly moved by the presentation.

"My mom used to talk to us quite a bit," Lisa said, adding the interviews brought up memories her mother had hid away. "It was something that I had never really conveyed to my daughter."

Lisa said she was affected by her mother's accounts of hardships endured through the various wars, adding most biographies mentioned something about World War II.

"They grew up at a time where it was natural for them to do as much work as anyone," Lisa said. "For them having to hear what it took, I think that was important."

Junior Mariah Watchman chose to honor her great grandmother Eva Watchman for the group project. Eva also attended the presentations, having a chance to sit and mingle with a few other elders.

Her story touched on her struggles and overcoming of alcohol addiction in adulthood, back to childhood memories of summers spent at Celilo Falls, once a prominent fishing and trading spot for American Indians that was inundated when The Dalles Dam was built in 1957.

"It was a great experience to be able to learn about my grandma, like family facts and history that I never even knew about," Mariah said. "She was really humorous, made a lot of us laugh."

For other students, like senior John Higheagle, whose group interviewed Jay Minthorn, the project connected students with an elder they might have known about but never met.

"I never thought I'd get to meet him," Higheagle said. "I kind of learned that living right now is kind of lucky ... knowing that they had it hard and we've got it easy."

Largely a humanities-focused project, social studies teacher Belinda Toyama and language arts teacher Mary Green contributed hours of behind-the-scenes work.

Both appeared to breathe a sigh of relief, encouraged with the end results.

"Maybe even though there were some struggles there at the end, or some things that we could improve upon, I just thought the kids did a really good job," Green said. "There was a lot of sincerity in their efforts."

The students' work will be open for public display at Tamastslikt both this afternoon and Wednesday afternoon.

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