Yelm district boosts relationship with Nisqually Tribe

Tribe history and culture will be emphasized in Yelm schools


Yelm Community Schools Native American Education Program coordinator Elizabeth Satiacum sparked the reignited bond between the district and the Nisqually Tribe in 2022.

The bond had existed for many years, but after her hire, the relationship between the tribe and the district grew stronger because of their collaboration to boost the Native education program.

Building on its initiatives in the previous academic year, the YCS is expanding its Native American Education Program in the 2023-24 school year. Among the changes are added training for staff in Nisqually history, culture and language, expansion of the Nisqually Language Program into middle and high schools, and the addition of Native events and celebrations.

Satiacum, along with YCS Assistant Superintendent Lisa Cadero-Smith, met with the tribe prior to the 2022-23 school year to discuss the tribe’s priorities for education. Tribal representatives said that they wanted to, among other priorities, educate staff in Nisqually history and culture to ensure that such topics were taught in schools. They also wanted to create a Nisqually language program and hold a graduation ceremony for Native American students.

As a result of the conversation, YCS renovated its Native American Education Program, implementing the tribe’s wishes for the 2022-23 school year. Namely, staff earned professional development training from the tribe in Nisqually history, culture and language, and the tribe led the Nisqually language pilot program at Southworth Elementary. Schools recognized Nisqually celebrations throughout the year, including Nisqually Day, Sept. 30, Chief Leschi Day, Jan. 28, and Billy Frank Jr. Day, March 9.

According to Satiacum, a member of the Quileute Tribe and a Native American activist, the first year of the upgraded education program was a success.

“I’ve been in education for a while, and to be able to work directly with the tribe and the district and to be able to make that connection, it was just an easy transition,” she said. “It was wonderful.”

The tribe and the district are aiming for an even better year in 2023-24. The Nisqually language program, which taught elementary students language basics, songs and drumming, will expand to middle and high school this year. Last year, the program taught students during lunch and recess, but it will now be embedded in the regular school day, Cadero-Smith said.

“The language program was unbelievable,” she said. “It was beautiful. This is a really new program. It’s a really strong priority. For tribes, this is so impactful for preserving their culture.”

Nisqually history will continue to be taught in schools as part of the implementation of the Since Time Immemorial Curriculum — a statewide initiative that teaches tribal sovereignty and history — within grades 4, 7 and 11. The district also hopes to collaborate with the tribe and the Nisqually River Education Project to create a summer program connecting youth with their cultural heritage and natural resources.

YCS is working to create a student mentor program at Yelm High School in which Nisqually tribal officer Trey Birdtail provides positive support and mentorship for Native American students. On Sept. 23, the district will host the South Sound Back-to-School Pow Wow at Bethel High School, celebrating a collaboration with Bethel, Yelm, North Thurston and Olympia school districts.

In the future, YCS is planning to work with South Puget Sound Community College for a fire summit for Native youth in the spring of 2024. The district also plans to work with the tribe and Nisqually River Education Project for a Nisqually culture STEM event for 4th-graders.

Above all, the district and the tribe has set out to educate both Native and non-Native students about a history and culture that is prevalent in the Yelm community, as well as to ensure all Native students are on a path to graduation. As a byproduct, Satiacum said that the education program is validating the work of the Nisqually community, both past and present.

“It’s really different here in Yelm because it’s a living history. It’s not 150 years ago. We’re living it right now,” she said. “It’s really refreshing to come to a school district and say, ‘Wow, they’re really teaching living history, like the canoe journey and the medicine wheel.’ ”

Satiacum said the program is helping students living within the Nisqually community “adapt and overcome,” and feel represented in the history curriculum.

“They’re getting credit for the work that they’re doing. It’s beautiful to see,” she said.