Powwows, Sweat Lodge, and Tribal Languages

How the ENAEP helps local Native American students learn about their cultural ceremonies and traditions

When I interview Mary Wilber via Zoom, she shares that it’s Indigenous Peoples Day in Canada where she is an enrolled member of the Osoyoos Indian Band in British Columbia. Mary is the Program Director for the federally-funded Eastside Native American Education Program, which serves Native American, Alaskan Native, and American Indian students in the Lake Washington, Bellevue, and Northshore School Districts. The ENAEP is in addition to the standard public school education these districts offer, and provides both academic assistance and cultural enrichment to about 270 kids in grades K-12, representing over 89 federally recognized tribes each year.

The program has existed since the mid- ‘70s, with Mary coming on as director in 2001. A parent committee and council of elders help determine the direction of the program every year. One focus is language, with stories and songs being tools that help each student learn words in their own tribal language. Making things is a significant part of the program too, and kids craft moccasins, flutes, ribbon skirts, or other cultural artifacts. As Mary says, “Learning about their language, culture, and history empowers a child and a family.”

Powwows are held each year, run by ENAEP high school students who raise money, develop a dinner menu, and create gifts for veterans – as the powwows always revolve around honoring veterans – both native and non-native. Sweat lodge is another important cultural tradition, and Mary tells a story about taking a bus full of kids and parents to the Wanapum ancestral village in Priest Rapids. Students visited the Wanapum sweat lodge, collected willows for the ENAEP sweat lodge in Redmond, and enjoyed a traditional sit-down meal. Their hosts were quite impressed with their young guests, and Mary said, “This program is about bringing ceremony to students. We teach kids to go into this type of situation and be respectful.”

The COVID-19 pandemic required an immediate pivot in how the program is administered, and Monday evenings were designated for weekly Zoom calls. Students have done beading and painting projects, made fry bread, and learned about the medicinal uses of stinging nettle tea all via Zoom. A lesson on Indian residential schools developed with curricula from the Smithsonian, and including input from the council of elders was another Monday night Zoom event. Mary remarked that she misses singing all together, as a virtual singalong doesn’t provide quite the same effect.

When asked about her favorite aspect of the ENAEP, Mary said “It’s seeing students learn things they love to learn, and seeing them succeed and graduate. I love my job, it’s one of those dream jobs I always thought I would have to move back to the rez to have. To me, our children are sacred. I am blessed every day to be able to help them on their journey. My students and families enrich my life because I’m serving my community.”

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