Cultural identity and navigating life’s stormy waters | Editor's Notebook

Tony Ledesma and his stepson, Kamiakin Guinn, 10, work on a beading project during the Healing of the Canoe program, March 9 at Kiana Lodge. The evening featured dinner and presentations about the cultural and life skills curriculum offered at Suquamish High School.   - Richard Walker
Tony Ledesma and his stepson, Kamiakin Guinn, 10, work on a beading project during the Healing of the Canoe program, March 9 at Kiana Lodge. The evening featured dinner and presentations about the cultural and life skills curriculum offered at Suquamish High School.
— image credit: Richard Walker

In a canoe, out on the ancestral waters, everyone has to do his or her part. You have to take good care of yourself, be patient and lift others up when they are weary.

“Being on the journey, we are much more than ourselves. We are part of the movement of life,” the Quileute Nation’s 10 Rules of the Canoe states. “We have a destination ... our goal is to go on.”

Life is that way. Sometimes the waters are rough, and sometimes someone sharing this journey of life with us feels he or she can’t go on. But if we take good care of ourselves, are patient and lift others up when they are weary, we will finish the journey together.

That’s why the Canoe Journey, the annual visit of about 100 canoes to indigenous territories throughout the Salish Sea, is a fitting metaphor for the “Healing of the Canoe” project, which promotes cultural identity, health and wellness among S’Klallam and Suquamish middle and high-school students. The project is a collaboration between the Suquamish Tribe, Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe, the National Institutes of Health, and the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute at the University of Washington.

At the “Healing of the Canoe” dinner and presentation March 9 at Kiana Lodge, I talked to the program facilitators Nigel Lawrence, Robin Sigo, Lisa Ray Thomas and others. The project was developed between 2005-08 after a community needs survey identified substance abuse education and cultural identity among children and teens as top priorities.

Educators, elders and tribal leaders developed a curriculum, “Holding Up Our Youth,” which includes behavioral skills training and substance abuse education. Traditional activities and stories reinforce the curriculum through the values found in Suquamish and S’Klallam culture.

Historically, it wasn’t easy for American Indian and Alaska Native children to walk in two worlds — home, where culture, language and traditional values are bulwarks of daily life; and school, where none of that was reflected in what was studied. For generations, Native children endured teachings about their culture and history that didn’t reflect the culture and history they knew. It’s tough to be serious about school when school isn’t serious about you. And that’s been reflected in the achievement gap and in dropout rates.

In the last decade there has been a big push in this state to improve the achievement of Native students and prepare them for postsecondary education. The tide is turning. The “Healing of the Canoe” project is part of that healing.

As part of the “Healing of the Canoe” curriculum, elders and leaders share their experiences with students, and talk about various topics such as drug and alcohol use, and cultural values and spirituality, Lawrence said. They share sacred knowledge and teachings that can not be provided in written form. They serve as mentors.

Students participate in culturally-based activities such as food gathering and preparation, traditional storytelling, and gift preparation (including beading, cedar collection, carving and weaving). Students are also involved in a number of civic activities. They have breakfast with the police chief, visit the Tribal Council, and help with the Canoe Journey hosting.

The program ends with an Honoring Ceremony, where facilitators acknowledge students for the completion of the program and honor their unique attributes. Students honor mentors with a short speech and a handmade gift.

“We are proving that cultural teachings are effective as a prevention measure,” Lawrence said.

Sigo said students learn that they can choose the type of behavior that they want in their lives, and that they are mentors “even if they don’t think they are.”

Remember this name: Erica Cardiel. She is 17 and a senior at Suquamish Early College High School. She chairs the Suquamish Youth Council, pulls in the Canoe Journey, makes films with Longhouse     Media,     and participated in the National Student Summit on Coastal and Ocean Issues in Washington, D.C. in February.

“I love this class a lot,” she said of “Healing of the Canoe.”

At the Kiana Lodge event, she talked to visitors about her presentation on the dangers of prescription drugs, particularly pills. Nationwide, abuse of pills is up 5.5 percent, and users are as young as 12. She said younger people seeking a high think prescription drugs are safer. “They’re not. They kill,” she said.

Cardiel chose to do research and a presentation on pill addiction because “It’s affecting our community and affecting the U.S.,” she said.

Visitors talked with other young presenters about their research, chatted over appetizers, tried their hands at art projects. Barbara Lawrence worked with her young grandchildren, Tutan and Ellilah Abraham, on a picture book, teaching them the Suquamish word for grandmother as they pasted a photo on the cover. Tony Ledesma and his stepson, Kamiakin Guinn, worked together on a beaded necklace.

“We are reclaiming a lot of things,” said educator Ted George, a co-founder of Suquamish Olalla Neighbors. “This is one of the successes we’re proud of. These children are moving into positive work, with a culturally enriched, natural support system.”

The full impact of the program is still being measured. But the journey is underway, in a healthy way.

— Healing of the Canoe Project:Learn more about the Healing of the Canoe Project at http://healingofthecanoe.org. The project also has a Facebook page.

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