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Spokane teens drum at fair

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SPOKANE, Wash. – The Spokane County Interstate Fair is the largest of its kind in eastern Washington state and it takes place annually on the ancestral homelands of the Spokane Tribe. The reservation was reduced to 157,000 acres in 1881 and tribal headquarters were moved farther west, but the tribe works ceaselessly to be an active community partner and to showcase tribal history. One activity is participation in the Interstate Fair.

And new this year was the addition of a tribal youth drum group from Wellpinit High School. Pat Moses is a tribal member and has taught at the school for many years. His teaching includes history and cultural subjects and he’s worked with drum groups at the school for about 20 years. “There’s something positive about sitting in a circle. We sing a few contemporary songs, but mostly they’re the older, traditional Spokane songs that were sung by their fathers and grandfathers.

“There’s a pride in being able to come here. I’m encouraged to have people get involved in culture, whatever it is. It helps with pride and self-esteem. All the elders I learned from have passed on. Suddenly, they’re gone and we’re left with just a few people with the knowledge of the language and the songs. It’s always good to sit down and try to carry on some of the teachings that we had a chance to learn. When we sing these songs it’s kind of like a prayer, like they’re with us.”

Jamie SiJohn works in public relations for the tribe; her son was one of the students singing in the drum group. “It makes me proud to know he and his friends are taking the time to learn our culture, learn our songs, and he’s making his grandparents and his great grandparents very proud by being at that drum. It’s great to hear the songs on our ancestral homeland.”

One of the songs was a Happy Dance. “We’re celebrating happiness,” SiJohn said. That happiness was apparent in the faces of the singers and in the laughter of other students standing nearby. The crowd gathered around was invited to join in the dance, and a number of people entered the circle.

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After a break, the group returned for a second session at the drum and an even larger audience assembled to watch, listen and learn a little more about Spokane tribal culture.

The tribal display and youth drum performance was held in the main fair building. This marks the third year the tribe has had a display at the fair and the first year for the drum. Four display cases contained such things as traditional regalia, baskets, old photographs, and a more contemporary, but beautiful baby board beaded by Nancy Rowland for her grandbaby.

SiJohn explained that each case represented items from specific families. One contained a round bustle that was about 50 years old from Tyrone Morning Owl and his family. Another held a beautifully beaded dress worn by Thyra Moses, Pat’s wife, back in 1970. A third held a man’s dance regalia from the Bill Matt family. The belt is more than 100 years old, and Matt still wears these pieces. The fourth were items owned by the Joe Flett family.

In addition to showcasing historical items and cultural activities, the display also included contemporary activities which stress how the tribe is an active community partner in numerous events in and around Spokane.

One contemporary enterprise is Two Rivers Houseboat Rentals, which is owned and operated by the tribe on Lake Roosevelt about an hour-and-a-half northwest of the city of Spokane. Six houseboats, including two new ones in 2008, are available for rent in addition to a convenience store and 260 boat slips at the marina. The addition of four summer cabins for rent, “has definitely been a highlight,” SiJohn said.

Spokane Tribal College was also highlighted. This college has been operating since 1995, offering “culturally appropriate higher education for Native American students” and offers liberal arts degrees or special employment training certifications.