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Educating our neighbors

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SPOKANE, Wash. – The Masonic Center in downtown Spokane was packed with at least 1,500 people from 21 schools to learn more about the Spokane Tribe, its long involvement with the Spokane River, and tribal history. The tribe was taking advantage of the opportunities during National American Indian Heritage Month to help celebrate with and educate students from area schools.

The opening ceremony began with ROTC members from Wellpinit High School on the reservation presenting the flags. That was followed by comments from members of the tribal council outlining the events to follow and thanking the schools and students for attending to learn more about the original inhabitants of this land where the city now stands. Spokane city mayor Mary Verner also spoke and praised the tribe for its involvement and efforts to protect the Spokane River and talked of her time spent working for the tribe prior to being elected mayor.

A drum group from Wellpinit High School provided the music and songs to bring a small grand entry into the room, a group which included several youngsters representing the tribe this year as tribal royalty. Some students were invited to join the dancers and brought huge smiles from them as they rejoined their classmates seated around the dance floor. That was to be repeated in an even larger degree four hours later when a Happy Dance allowed many students to join the Native students.

A highlight of the opening ceremonies was the performance by grade school students from Wellpinit who provided a production they entitled “A River is Calling.” Not only did the students write the words to the songs, they have performed this on a number of occasions including once with the Spokane Symphony Orchestra. It highlights the tribe’s long history with the Spokane River which has provided not only food and water for centuries but also a method of travel. A student choir sang and two students narrated, calling attention to the problems of more recent times where the river has become polluted and many species of fish and other organisms have disappeared.

Part of the production involves other students entering with room length strands of a filmy material simulating river water. Audience members were also provided smaller pieces of the material and were asked to wave it to look like waves. The performance and interaction with the crowd stressed the need to protect the river from further degradation. Tribal spokesperson Jamie Sijohn commented on the students’ pride as they sang.

After the opening ceremonies, classes were divided and led by older students from Wellpinit High School to other events.

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An upstairs ballroom provided space for various presentations on different subjects including the effects of dams on sturgeon and salmon, the use and history of pit houses, the tribal fishery programs, and culture preservation with a variety of artifacts on display. Other displays highlighted a wide range of tribal history and current activities.

Students had the opportunity to learn how to bead by making friendship bracelets and necklaces. Students were exposed to the tribal (Salish) language and learned a few words. Another room was set up for tribal elders as a story telling venue, or simply to talk of life “back when” or to answer questions from students.

When the students assembled for closing activities, tribal councilman and elder Jim Sijohn asked them to imagine sitting at a campsite with the river flowing and the salmon jumping. “Imagine the campfire smoke and the smells of dinner. Close your eyes and imagine a campsite of over 100 years ago along these river banks.”

“There was a hush across the room. You could hear a pin drop. It was amazing,” Jamie Sijohn said.

The day ended with some friendship songs and a happy dance. “To see those kids get in there and just go for it, that was pretty good,” Jamie said.

SiJohn was involved with planning from the beginning which began over a year ago. But it was worth it. “The event was a proven success by how many people showed up, how many stayed, and how many questions were asked.

“We absolutely plan to do this again. I received some very nice e-mails and phone calls the day after, teachers asking if we’ve planned a date for 2010 yet. They want to get us on their school calendar. That’s exciting.”