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Education Special: Honor your culture

Dr. Martina M. "Tina" Whelshula's maternal ancestors are of the Sinixt/Arrow Lakes Nation, people indigenous to several thousand acres of land in southeastern British Columbia, Canada and northeastern Washington. In early colonial days gold was discovered in their territory, which started the displacement of the Sinixt from their original land. Sinixt were forced to find refuge with other nations in Canada and the United States while corporate moguls, railroad capitalists, missionaries, explorers, and government officials worked together to find ways to take the land and exploit the resources.

Many of her ancestors sneaked back to their territory to customarily gather natural foods, but for the most part all were prevented from returning permanently. In the meantime, Great Britain and the United States were haggling over the land and in 1846 established the 49th Parallel. This further closed the gates. Although the Canadian government knew there were many Sinixt enrolled with the Colville and other tribes, it used its own records to show that the last surviving member in British Columbia had died. Based on this and to discourage any challenges of ownership, in 1956 the government declared the "Arrow Lakes Tribe" extinct. Today, although fragmented because of continued interference, there is still an ongoing fight by the Sinixt descendants to take control of their land and destiny.

One of the descendants who fought diligently in the early 1950s to protect the land base in the U.S. by fighting against termination of the Colville Tribes was Tina's maternal grandmother, Lucy Theresa Seymour Swan. For survival due to inability to work on the Colville Reservation, the Swan family moved to Spokane. This is where Tina's parents met, married, and where she was born.

Tina was an infant in 1958 when her father Johnny Fry and mother Alice (now Alice Stewart) moved to Japan where later her sister Bethley Jo was born. The family's main language was English but at age three, Tina learned to sing and talk in Japanese from their part-time maid. This exposure to other cultures at such a young age helped develop and broaden her mind in preparation for later years when she pursued an education.

When her father's military stint in Japan ended the family moved to the east coast where Tina attended both private parochial schools and later public schools. Her parents divorced and she and her sister lived with their mother.

Her mother said Tina had her own mind about Western concepts at a very young age and surprised her many times. She excelled in school, but at times when she didn't believe what they were trying to teach, she challenged authority and firmly stood her ground.

Tina wasn't aware of racism against Indians until she traveled to Spokane with her mother in the 1960s to visit her Grandma Lucy in the hospital. Prior to that, people in the New Jersey town in which she lived treated her well. She said, "We lived in such a huge multicultural community that it was more the opposite. There was a sense of awe and intrigue among my acquaintances because I was Indian." Her friends wanted to know more about her and she would consult her mother for more information. An incident in Spokane is still vivid in her mind. She remembers, "We all got kicked out of the hotel because the manager discovered that we were Indians."

Tina moved to Spokane in the summer of 1972 with her mother and sister to wait for available housing on the Colville Reservation. She became involved in cultural activities and began meeting people who formulated positive ways to counter racial discrimination. She was a dancer, singer, and artist and sought out Indian elders who taught her traditional values, spirituality, and showed her how to bead, sew, gather and prepare natural foods.

Tina recalls when she was in the ninth grade and the feeling of self-pride was so strong. One morning while getting ready for school, she put on a button that said "Indian Power" and her mother, afraid she would get hurt by racists in Spokane, tried to make her take it off. She just grabbed a couple more buttons "Our Land, Love it or Leave It" and "Indians Discovered Columbus" and put them on her purse as well before heading out the door. She completed the ninth grade as an honor student.

Tina had her first child and she moved back with her mother to Inchelium on the Colville Reservation. While there she enrolled in school, but her tenth grade studies were interrupted so badly that she felt compelled to withdraw completely. Since Inchelium was the community where her mother's family and other relatives were raised, Tina expected to find like-minded individuals and feel welcomed. Instead, she found resentment. She was 16-years-old and as soon as she noticed there were no Indian curricula in the school, she began making requests of the administrators. Inchelium School is a state-operated school and had its own ideas of structure. She wanted a language course and cultural instruction to be incorporated into the system.

She said, "I was considered too radical and they fought me every step of the way. Some students even accused me of trying to make the school all Indian. Teachers would talk about me and made it very difficult to stay, even though I was an 'A' student." She tried everything and even petitioned the school board and met with the superintendent telling them that students needed more Indian role models but to no avail. Students ridiculed her in unsigned articles to the school paper. The mistreatment became so unbearable that she quit, saying, "I guess you could say I was pushed out."

Why would teachers push out an "A" student? Tina's mother had this to say, "The school was receiving federal funds for special Indian programs but I don't believe the advisory board was aware of the government guidelines. Teachers were spending the money for things like drapes and washers and dryers for their classes. When Tina questioned the misuse of that money some teachers got on the defensive and turned some of the students against her."

In 1976 Tina was so determined to get through high school that she asked to take the General Education Development (GED) test. Not knowing she could have studied for it, she dove into it. She took the 10-hour test while having to nurse her second born, her 2-week-old son. After getting her GED she began working for Inchelium Head Start and thought about the advice of program supervisor Vicky Desautel who encouraged her to go to college.

On looking back, Tina, sees the importance of having a support system that offers a sense of family when a student is away from home. She teamed up with one of her aunts, Sally Misiaszek, and registered at Eastern Washington University to study Communications. The financial burdens were great, so they shared housing and other expenses as well as helping each other study. Juggling schedules to meet the needs of her children plus tending to her studies while under stress of previous years was difficult.

She found it equally important to have someone to turn to for advice while studying and found that needed mentorship in Cecilia Alvarez, the Indian Education Counselor at EWU. She said, "Cecilia appeared in my life at a critical time. She brought me back from a dark time and nurtured a new me by believing in me and valuing who I was as a person." Things improved and Tina managed to graduate with a B.A. in Communications Studies with a minor in Indian Studies.

Tina volunteered as a parent at Head Start and after awhile she decided she wanted to move away from the reservation. Almost immediately she got a call from Sophie Tonasket, the director of the American Indian Community Center in Spokane. Tonasket offered her the job as an employment counselor and job developer and Tina moved again.

Tina met and married Marty Whelshula who obtained a job as Cultural Resource Specialist for Spokane's Indian Education Program through Title IX.

Tina was delighted to learn that things had greatly improved in the Inchelium community. Parents used their voice through implementation of Title IX to have culture incorporated into the school program.

Tina studied for and obtained her masters degree in Counseling Psychology at Gonzaga University and soon after she decided to get a Ph.D. She acquired a doctorate degree in Traditional Knowledge and reflects on that with enthusiasm, saying "The most powerful time in my education is when I was able to study about my own culture and world view during my doctoral program. It was the most profound educational experience I have ever had. It was my healing."

Tina works as Indian education specialist at Gonzaga where she is developing a program that addresses language and culture revitalization, education, and healing.

Her advice to young Indian people; "You don't have to give up who you are in order to succeed in higher education."