Yelm High School students recently got a taste of native culture as the students of the native leadership group put on the school’s first Native American heritage assembly.
“We’ve been doing assemblies at the elementary level for several years now, but at the high school it was tougher because there are so many activities and they have so many assemblies,” said Sandra Gordon, native education liaison for Yelm Community Schools. “But last spring, we decided…to make an intentional effort to include Nisqually — our neighbors and original inhabitants of this land — to partake in what we are doing and to teach.”
Since November is native heritage month, the Nov. 5 assembly was fitting and served as a sort of kickoff to the things that Yelm High School hopes to do throughout the year to celebrate native heritage.
Nisqually’s McCloud family plans to come in and do cedar rows and cedar weaving with the students throughout the year. And next week, representatives from the Nisqually Indian Tribe will do storytelling and crafting in Yelm High School’s English classes, so all of the ninth grade classes will be exposed to a different culture, Gordon said.
“They are studying narrative right now and cultural identity, which ties in with what’s going on,” she said.
Also, there was already a presentation in a history class three weeks ago on the impact on the indigenous people from the westward expansion, and Gordon said the hope is for more presentations to come.
“The assembly itself just symbolizes the forging of the communities,” Gordon said. “For my students, it’s a chance for them to express themselves as natives. It’s really a connection to their culture and making a presence in their school, in a good way.”
TaNiesha Birdtail, senior at Yelm High School and vice chair of Nisqually Youth Council, said that the assembly was geared toward helping her fellow students see each native tribe as a different culture.
“The importance of an assembly like this is to understand that we are all individuals — that we’re not all natives who ride horses or pick berries,” Birdtail said. “There’s definitely different areas and different types of natives and people need to understand that we’re all not just one thing.”
As part of the Nisqually Youth Council, Birdtail travels around the U.S. sharing Nisqually Indian Tribe’s culture with other natives.
“Just this past year I was chairwoman of the Nisqually Youth Council, and this year I’m vice chair, so I kind of have experience doing things like this,” she said. “In Nisqually Youth Council we travel in and out of state to conferences, and we have a cultural sharing between different tribes in different areas.”
As former chair of the youth council, Birdtail specifically remembers a time of cultural exchange when she and the rest of the council traveled to California.
“This past summer we went to San Diego and shared with this Arizona tribe about some of the things we do up here in Washington that they don’t do like stick games, and they showed us a game. It was super cool — a cultural exchange.”
At Yelm High School, the assembly wasn’t quite a cultural exchange, because it was one-sided, but the Nisqually Youth Council helped Birdtail prepare for the presentation aspect of a high school assembly.
“Within the exchange it’s more so that they show us a piece of their culture, and we show them,” Birdtail said. “That’s the whole exchange part. Here (at the high school), it’s more so informing, rather than exchanging.”
The assembly itself was emceed by Birdtail, who recited a proclamation signed by Governor Jay Inslee: “Native American contributions and values have helped shape the social, political, environmental and economic fabric of the state, while also enhancing freedom, prosperity and cultural diversity.
“The state of Washington has designated the Friday immediately following the fourth Thursday in November a state legal and school holiday known as Native American Heritage Day,” she continued.
Birdtail said this proclamation to applause, but then flipped it on its ear.
“We are appreciative of this declaration, yet for Native Americans, every day is a celebration of native heritage.” she said. “Our hope is that we share enough of ourselves for you to celebrate with us.”
The assembly also featured the Canoe Family and their dancing and drumming — led by Hanford McCloud — providing a glimpse of the kind of movement and music that Nisqually Indian Tribe has been doing for centuries.
A couple native leadership students came in full regalia, showing the student body the types of traditional dress that Nisqually tribal members have worn for special occasions — the styles passed down from generation to generation.
Ultimately, the assembly was a chance for native high schoolers to claim their cultural identities in front of their student body. The primary native members that Yelm High School has are from Nisqually Indian Tribe, and from Puyallup.
“For the average Yelm student, hopefully the assembly will turn on the light that there are different cultures, that we are on native soil,” Gordon said. “This is not to say that white men are so bad, it’s just that we were here first. It’s not to show off. Its to say, ‘hey, we’re here,’ because natives can sometimes feel invisible.”