Learning Nisqually history starts with building a sense of place

DUPONT, Pierce County — A yellow school bus carefully chugged up a curving gritty driveway, past early-20th-century dairy barns to the top of the hill of what used to be known as Braget Farm. 

Birdsongs and cool, late April morning air greeted the Meadows Elementary School fourth graders as they bounded down the bus steps and gathered outside the Nisqually Cultural Center. The former cattle barn has been reclaimed and retrofitted as a modern longhouse, with smooth concrete floors and timber walls covered in photographs and artifacts representing the tribe’s history and heritage. On the exterior by the building’s entrance in red lettering is the Lushootseed phrase “sxwdaɁdəb” meaning “a place to gather your spirit power.”

The children, their teachers and chaperones hushed as tribal leader Hanford McCloud called their attention to the sprawling Nisqually Valley below them. He asked how many of them had visited the Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, named after the late tribal leader and environmental activist. Several visitors raised their hands. 

Beyond the boardwalk, McCloud pointed to what’s labeled McAllister Creek on a Google map. “You see this water system that flows through there?” he asked. “We call it Medicine Creek where the treaty was signed, right out in front of I-5 …”

North Thurston Public Schools has embraced tribal learning in a big way. The Nisqually Indian Tribe flag flies alongside the Washington state and American flags at all 22 of the district’s schools. Students learn about the Treaty of Medicine Creek from Nisqually government leaders who visit their classrooms. Billy Frank Jr. Day is celebrated on March 9. There are current efforts to revive field trips and educator training — halted by the pandemic — on the Nisqually reservation.

But North Thurston is an exceptional case, in a state where teaching tribal culture, history and sovereignty has been required by law since 2015.

Legislation passed in 2005 set precedent for the Since Time Immemorial curriculum, but only “recommended” it be taught. In 2015, a new law passed making it required learning. In 2018, the state Legislature passed a bill requiring teacher preparation programs to include this curriculum. But schools are still lagging. 

According to a fall 2021 state Board of Education report, only about half the state’s 295 school districts surveyed have adopted a tribal history and culture curriculum. Failing to implement the curriculum could result in a recommendation from the board to the Superintendent of Public Instruction to withhold funding, but that has never happened. Stephanie Davidsmeyer, communications manager for the board, said a new survey underway will ask districts for more information about their timeline. 

Opponents argued that the mandate was underfunded, took away local control and demanded too much of schools. Still, the base curriculum to teach across grade levels is free and endorsed by all 29 of the state’s federally recognized tribes, many of which have invested their own time and money in helping schools. New training webinars on the curriculum are being offered this spring by the state’s public instruction office.

Bill Kallappa II, of the Makah Tribe, chairs the Washington State Board of Education and works in Native education. He said that while pushback has subsided, there’s still resistance and hesitancy from individual educators and schools. 

He argues that it’s important for educators to learn about the history and cultures of all the students they teach. “When a student walks in, you don’t just see them as a math student, you see them as a human being. You can understand that kid now because you have the history and context,” Kallappa said. “The stronger the relationship you have with a student, the better they’ll learn.”

Not just “checking off a box”

It’s one thing to acknowledge the land you’re on. Supporters of tribal education believe it’s another thing to learn about it, to understand and appreciate its history, culture and people.

The Treaty of Medicine Creek that McCloud referenced was initiated with little explanation and interpretation by Gov. Isaac Ingalls Stevens. Signed in December 1854 by several Puget Sound tribal members, it effectively turned over 2.5 million acres of tribal land to the U.S. government in exchange for smaller reservation parcels, cash payments and fishing rights. Those rights, however, became the basis for the fights Billy Frank Jr. and others led to retain treaty rights and tribal sovereignty. 

This history, along with ongoing efforts to protect and sustain tribal heritage and governance, is what the Nisqually and other tribes want all students and educators to learn. 

“It should be more than checking off a box, and let’s not put a period at the end,” said McCloud, the 6th Nisqually Tribal Council member whose children have attended North Thurston Schools.

He said his son, Hanford McCloud Jr., now 25, was in fifth grade and struggling in classes when the senior McCloud started showing up in schools to get to the root of the problem. 

The teachers and principal there suggested his son might be better off “in an Indian school.” McCloud argued that a public school ought to be able to support both the needs of Nisqually students and other kids. The principal walked back his suggestion, and McCloud began attending curriculum meetings and visiting his son’s classroom. 

“I came in with my drum and my drumstick,” said McCloud. “I didn’t just beat it, ‘cause that’s what they expect us to do: Beat it. Chant for us. No. This is an extension of who I am and I’m gonna share with you my culture and [do this] for my son.” 

After McCloud had done a month of classroom visits, other teachers started asking him if he would come to their classrooms. Instead, McCloud requested a schoolwide assembly, where he introduced members of the Nisqually Canoe Family, who uphold the tribe’s traditions and rites of passage by traveling and fishing the Puget Sound by canoe. 

When McCloud shares these experiences, he’s also quick to explain that this is not for show. As European settlers began colonizing and strong-arming themselves onto tribal land, “They took the canoes, they took the drums, they took the ceremonies from us because they knew that’s what grounded us. That’s what brought everyone together.”  

The creation of Interstate 5 deepened geographical divides. The installation of some 10 miles of dikes along the Nisqually River Delta further devastated the livelihoods of the Native fishing tribe as they watched the land literally dry up and precious salmon disappear. 

Teaching tribes as “asset-based”

These are some of the lessons the Nisqually want to see taught in school. And there are similar histories across Washington state, being taught to varying degrees in other schools. The Wellpinit School District, a public school district located on the Spokane Indian Reservation, established a Cultural Department in 2020 with three teachers, all Spokane tribal citizens, who teach language, history and culture to all staff and students. 

A 2019 report from the National Congress of American Indians found that 87% of state history standards in the U.S. do not mention Native American history or contributions after 1900. Nonnative people, Kallappa said, often speak like tribes no longer exist or that they are a “deficit-based” community that only struggles. 

“When really we’ve known all along that we’re asset-based. Our communities are an asset. I mean look at our language, look at our culture, look at our art, look at our food, look at our locations where we’ve lived for thousands of years,” he said. “We’ve coexisted here and we didn’t mess it up. Someone else came in and messed it up.” 

Kallappa hopes the Since Time Immemorial curriculum can help reframe people’s perceptions about Native citizens and put Native people in the present tense. 

“We have scientists, we have biologists, we have hydrogeologists, we have attorneys, we have doctors, we have optometrists,” he said. 

In talking with young people of all backgrounds, Kallappa often recommends that they consider working for tribes, as he has done. “They pay really well, and you’re in a small community where you feel a sense of belonging and that can help you launch your career,” he said. “A lot of people who do start their careers with the tribe never leave because they found that sense of community and belonging.”

After the passage of the legislation to mandate the Since Time Immemorial curriculum, former state Sen. John McCoy, a member of the Tulalip Tribes, told the Tribal Tribune in 2015: “In tribal history and culture, there’s a saying, that if you don’t teach history you’re doomed to repeat it.” 

Working together to build confidence, belonging

In the Nisqually Valley, the tribe and school district have worked together for years to teach a full and inclusive history. The tribe and district budget time and money into training educators and providing resources like Native texts, maps and speakers to students. The passage of the 2015 Since Time Immemorial law has given more urgency to the effort. School and tribal leaders hope their efforts can serve as a model for how other school districts, tribes and government can plan and work together. 

“It’s important to give our teachers a sense of place,” said Kallappa. “You can read a lot about stuff in books and you can watch videos online but learning is different, it’s more impactful when you’re actually somewhere physically. Then you hear the historical stories, our legends and heroes, and see the connections.”

Jana Brock, Dixie Reimer and Joyce Mackiewicz, North Thurston science, technology, engineering and mathematics education specialists, have been tracking how an interdisciplinary approach to learning through a tribal lens affects teaching and learning. 

“It’s giving our teachers confidence behind the lessons,” said Brock, science and instructional integration specialist for prekindergarten through grade 5. 

This school year, the district is piloting “Salmon, Cedar, Canoe: Stewards of the Ecosystems,” a fourth-grade STEM unit that involves classroom work and a daylong site visit to the Nisqually Cultural Center. Once there, kids have a range of experiences, including climbing aboard a 41-foot seafaring canoe and trying their hand at traditional cedar bark weaving. They work with area scientists and educators to learn about local ecology by studying the olfactory systems and migration of salmon. They practice environmental stewardship by tending to native blueberry bushes growing in the community garden. 

When I tell the story of the cedar tree that existed thousands of years ago and then I show them how to weave, I want them to grasp fully that we’ve always been there,” said Joyce McCloud, mother of the tribal council member and director of the Nisqually Cultural Center.

She regularly teaches and speaks to local public school classes and hosts culture workshops for tribal members. “We want [everyone] to experience our culture and what it means to us,” she said.

During the last field trip of this school year, the North Thurston teachers presented the Nisqually leaders with books of handwritten letters and drawings from the fourth graders reflecting on their experiences. Many kids wrote about sights, smells and encounters in nature that they’ve never had before. Several wrote that they were “honored” to visit such a place and suggested that more students be able to have the same experience. 

“It made me feel like I was a part of your culture,” a student named Madison wrote.