Letter from WaHeLut, Frank's Landing

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The air is different here; fresher, lighter than at most riverbanks, not weighed down with rotting or held in place by mold. Even the mud smells good.

Here is the WaHeLut Indian School at Frank's Landing, Washington, where 128 students from 22 Native nations are enrolled in classes from preschool through the eighth grade.

The school places a high premium on cultural knowledge and skills. Their symbol for this is traditional sculpture that graces the WaHeLut grounds ? two cedar totem poles made by Simon Charlie (Cowichan Coast Salish), a master carver from British Columbia.

The students are energetic and confident in planned presentations and respectful in ceremonial settings. I watched them in an outdoor friendship circle one morning when the wind shifted the fire's smoke in their direction. Holding their collective breath, they moved rather subtly away from the tobacco trail, all without choking, cracking up or breaking the circle. Most adults would not have handled the situation as deftly.

By all accounts, the WaHeLut students also maintained their composure on Feb. 28, 2001, when the 6.8 Nisqually Earthquake rocked the region. The entire WaHeLut student body was on a field trip to the state capitol in neighboring Olympia. The legislative building where they were when the quake hit is still under repair today.

Everyone says it is miraculous that no WaHeLut students were hurt.

The very heart of the major quake was Frank's Landing. Amazingly, nothing was disturbed here, while in Seattle, some 35 miles away, the quake ruptured pipes and caused structural damage to homes and buildings, shattering all the glass in the SeaTac Airport's control tower.

Its epicenter was deep inside the earth, at the mouth of the Nisqually River and 30 miles beneath it. It struck in the center of three important landmarks: WaHeLut Indian School; the Treaty Tree, where the Medicine Creek Treaty was signed in 1854; and the home of Billy Frank (Nisqually), the leader of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission for 25 years. (It was his father, Willie Frank who was the namesake of Frank's Landing.)

WaHeLut, the Treaty Tree and the Frank home were undamaged. Everyone calls that a miracle, too.

The Frank's Landing Indian Community was the epicenter of an earlier high-magnitude legal quake that shook the salmon industry and reverberated through the corridors of power ? the treaty fishing case known as the Boldt decision. It was named after the federal district judge who ruled in 1974 that the Indians in the Pacific Northwest were entitled to one-half of the anadromous fish catch, both on ? and off-reservation, for ceremonial, subsistence and economic purposes.

Frank's Landing was the site of Indian encampments and fish-ins, starting in the 1960s. The state's fish and game wardens always knew they could find Indians fishing along that stretch of the river. Nearly all the Indians at the Landing got clubbed, arrested or cited for fishing violations at one time or another. Most of that stopped in 1979, when the Supreme Court upheld the treaty fishing rights of the Indians along the Nisqually River and throughout the Pacific Northwest.

The WaHeLut Indian School grew out of the fishing rights struggle and its board members are veterans of it: Maiselle Bridges, who is Frank's sister, and her daughters, Alison Gottfriedson and Suzette Mills, who are all Puyallup, and Lois Allen, who is Colville. Reminders of the fish wars are displayed prominently at the school, most notably Frank's 25-foot canoe and carved oars that the game wardens confiscated in 1964 and did not return to him until 1980.

Bridges' other daughter, Valerie, died young and was the inspiration for WaHeLut. "She used to feel sorry for the kids that lived in the city," her mother recalled. "They didn't have a river to swim in or trees to climb or wildflowers to go out in the woods and pick or salmon berries that grew along the river to eat. She used to pick up her son and she'd say, 'By the time you grow up, we're going to have a school for you. You're not going to go through things we went through.'

"My girls had a hard time in school because the teachers were resentful and angry at what we were doing, but they took it out on our school kids. They'd threaten to throw them out of class. They would even get kicked off the school bus, right on the side of the road to walk home ? That's why we built this school."

Bridges founded the school in 1974, with "tiny shacks we built on Willie Frank's land. In the middle of the night, we moved the two rooms onto Fort Lewis property and we squatted on this land and started building more and more. The Army was ordering us out, but we had our warriors back in D.C., fighting to keep us here." In the late-1970s, Congress conveyed the land to the Frank's Landing Indian Community for educational purposes.

The school was named after the great Nisqually warrior whose strength and spiritual powers are legendary. "WaHeLut was the right hand to Chief Leschi," recalls Bridges. "The Army finally hung Leschi, but WaHeLut lived to be an old man. The white man never did know who he was; he went by Yelm Jim and was in his late-90s when he died.

"When we were looking for a name, Dad said, 'We'll call the school WaHeLut, 'cause nothing defeated WaHeLut the man and so nothing will defeat your school.'"

The school has survived some serious battles. In 1995, it opened a state-of-the-art gym and kitchen complex. A massive flood in 1996, the largest in 75 years, destroyed a dozen school buildings, the pow wow grounds and seven homes, but the new complex was spared. In less than two years of construction, WaHeLut moved into its new $4.2 million school.

Hank Adams (Assiniboine-Sioux), a long-time member of the Frank's Landing Indian Community and a leading expert in federal Indian law and policy, took charge of preparing the grounds for the school's first pow-wow since the flood. After clearing the field and before laying the rectangles of grass, Adams explained the earlier troubles and asked visiting Indians to offer blessings.

The stellar group was part of a gathering convened at WaHeLut by Vine Deloria (Standing Rock Sioux), noted author, historian and treaty scholar. They included Virginia Beavert (Yakama), Lionel Boyer (Shoshone), Jewell James (Lummi), John Pretty On Top (Crow), Jake Swamp (Akwesasne Mohawk) and Albert White Hat (Sicangu Lakota).

Adams, Deloria and Frank were witnesses to the blessing, along with Jon L. Claymore (Hunkpapa), who has been WaHeLut's principal for one year. He's from the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in Eagle Butte, S. D., and in the twelfth year of an education career he began in Taholah, Wash..

Pretty On Top sang a song about gathering the birds, which stirred the hawks and eagles nesting in the cottonwoods and cedars that tower over the grounds. The Winds of the Northwest Pow Wow was well launched and started again on June 16.

WaHeLut has 31 teachers, cooks, drivers and support staff. All the ones I've met are smart, creative and friendly. The students look up to the teachers and like the cafeteria food, which tells you what an unusual school WaHeLut really is.

As impressive as the adults are, the students are the star children of Frank's Landing. They sparkle with hope and good humor. They listen as carefully as any university's post-grads, only with greater respect. When they recite the "National Native American Honor Society Pledge," they begin humbly and end joyously:

"I. I am. I am very special. I am unique. I count. I am loved. I believe I can achieve anything I set my mind to. I believe in our language and our culture. I believe in our land and our way of life. I believe in the teachings of our elders. I believe there is a plan for my life. I believe in the power of prayer. I believe in God, the Great Spirit. Hoyt!"

WaHeLut ? a good place with a good name, filled with wisdom, innocence and miracles, small and medium-sized.

Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, is president of the Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C., and a columnist for Indian Country Today.