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Squaxin Island develops on-line cultural education certification course

SHELTON, Wash. - Education is like a stone cast into a still pond. The ripples keep moving on, affecting more and more people the wider they spread.

A perfect example is the cultural resources protection program developed by Jeff Van Pelt, program manager for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. In its third year of operation, the program has had a major impact on cultural resource departments throughout the Northwest.

But it is graduates of the program, like Rhonda Foster, cultural director of the Squaxin Island heritage and culture department, who pass on the knowledge and make a difference.

When Foster attended Van Pelt's program in October 1998, she had no idea what impact the three-day course would have on her. Taught to coordinate county and state agencies needed to work with tribal cultural resources team, Foster also learned how to physically investigate culturally raided sites as well as learn the federal and state laws governing cultural resources.

"Basically I learned that our laws are weak," Foster says. "We all really need to understand that. And we need to, at a minimum, start co-managing cultural resources, if not totally managing our cultural resources."

Inspired, Foster returned to the Squaxin and applied what she had learned. After spending months looking for an appropriate professional archaeologist to work with on tribal projects, she gave up and decided to empower herself. She beefed-up her own knowledge base by signing up for archaeology and anthropology classes at South Puget Sound Community College near Olympia.

But to her surprise, by diving headfirst into technical archaeology, Foster discovered just how important Indian knowledge base and point of view really is. In the field, on many occasions Foster's innate tribal knowledge more than paid off. A prime example was when her class investigated a wet site near her tribal home on Puget Sound.

"When we found a gill net, the instructor said, 'Rhonda, get down there. I think they found a basket.' And I went down there and looked and said, 'That's a gill net.' He wasn't sure what he was looking at."

As a member of a fishing tribe, Foster immediately set about measuring the web size of the net. She knew the mesh size would tell her whether those ancient people were fishing for King salmon or Silver salmon or Sockeye. When they started to remove the gill net, Foster saw indicators the net had been tossed aside in some sort of emergency.

"I said, 'Wait a minute. There's something wrong here.' And they didn't know what to do. They kept looking at me, puzzled. And I pointed out there were salmon still in the net. No Indian would leave salmon in a gill net. It rots it out."

As her classes progressed, time after time Foster pointed out things the instructors didn't see, everything from evidence of salmon die-offs to shell middens and baskets.

"I knew all this information that they had no clue about," Foster says. "I wish that Native Americans could understand we have a world of knowledge inside of us that we don't learn in school. Things we learned from the time were born."

After finishing her certification as a cultural resource technician, Foster decided she wanted to help open up the field for other Natives. Thinking about the difficulties she experienced having to commute to school while juggling a job, Foster decided what was needed was an off-campus technicians training course - a certification course that could be studied without ever having to leave the reservation.

She approached Dale Croes, professor and chairman of the anthropology department at South Puget Sound college, with the idea of setting up an Internet-based cultural resource technician certification course.

"It seemed like quite a task," Croes says. "But our college is in the midst of wanting to develop online classes. ... So we suggested developing a series of anthropology courses and some new courses on survey techniques and the laws and laboratory procedures. As it turned out, the timing was perfect for this."

Basing the framework for the course on a successful on-campus model in Santa Cruz, Calif., Foster and Croes set to work. They hired a software programmer and designed 40 credit hours of classes students could take for certification. They include general introductions to archaeology and cultural anthropology as well as specialized classes in areas of interest to Native students such as the Columbia plateau region, Pacific coastal region, southeastern Alaska and wetland archaeology.

To broaden the geographic range, they include references for different state laws concerning archaeology, forensics and law enforcement so students can reference information they need for their specific locale.

For many reasons, Foster's brainchild can be a real boon for tribes that want to develop a cultural resources program.

"There are a lot of tribal members out there who would like to take college courses and train for the jobs available from the tribes," Croes says. " But, it's very hard to leave their jobs and families to come out to college and be there for nine months. But on-line courses could be equally effective."

Chuck James, archaeologist for the BIA in Portland, Ore., has also seen the program's potential for tribes. He helped expand the program by sending out notices to 89 tribes, from southeastern Alaska through southeastern Oregon over to Idaho and Montana. He also suggested the various tribes inter-link through the program for more than course work.

"They'll be able to discuss cultural resources with other Natives," James says. "They'll be able to discuss what they're learning over the Internet."

If all continues to go well, the on-line classes will be available starting this fall. For those interested in the cultural resource technician classes, contact Dale Croes, chairman of anthropology at South Puget Sound College, 360-754-7711 extension 336; or go to the college's website at http://spscc.ctc.edu.