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Discovering Native Life Program Trying To Spark Light Of Pride In Indian Students

Fri., March 10, 1995

One minute, 7-year-old Charlie Garland climbs on the classroom table. The next, he hides in the closet.

Reading tutor John Leal, a tall Indian man with a long ponytail, shows no frustration with the boy. But he is bothered that he can’t find a book at a level easy enough for Charlie to read.

Charlie emerges from hiding as Leal settles on flashcards. “What if I got all these words right?” Charlie asks, fingering the large stack. “You’d be jumping for joy.”

Charlie’s kinetic personality is at one extreme of the 126 students at the Native Life Center, a new after-school program in Spokane School District 81 paid for with federal Indian education money.

Leal’s patience is an example of the rolemodeling that girds the program. The all-Native American staff weaves Indian culture into counseling sessions and reading lessons. They burn sweet grass for a smudging ritual each afternoon.

They try to calm children like Charlie.

All students in the program claim some Indian ancestry. The diversity of the Indian students in Spokane schools goes deeper than the 82 tribes they represent.

Some have Indian blood on both sides of the family; others are part African American or part Caucasian or both. Skin colors in the classrooms range from pale pink to rich brown. One girl has long blond hair.

A few staff members refer to mixed-race students as “breeds,” short for “half-breeds.”

Some students are shy and unobtrusive; others, like Charlie, can’t sit still. Some are years behind academically; others make good grades. Some were born on reservations; others, in Spokane hospitals.

“The more traditional kids are quiet. The breeds are active,” says counselor Ron Pinkham. “They don’t know, ‘Am I white? Am I black? Am I Indian?’ They get this real restlessness about themselves.”

Sparking the light of pride

Conventional wisdom is that traditionally raised Indian children learn better with hands-on activities and by hearing stories. Because children are discouraged from interrupting their elders, they may have trouble speaking out in class and tend to fade into the background.

But that doesn’t hold true for many Native Life Center students, who interrupt incessantly.

Staff members try to spark the light of pride in all the students. They believe that loss of cultural identity can lead Indian teenagers into alcoholism and drug abuse.

“I’m not trying to have them think one race is better than another,” says center coordinator Pam Austin. “To me, it has to do with inner self and building on who they are. I’m trying to give them something to be proud of when they live in such poverty and despair.”

Two years ago, Indian students in Spokane schools were asked what they wanted in a program. Cultural education, tutoring and counseling were their top three answers.

Indian students are District 81’s second-largest ethnic group, after blacks. There are 1,144 Indian students in Spokane schools, 3.6 percent of enrollment.

Because the district received $212,000 in federal money, the students got what they wanted.

They take classes in Indian culture, learn the language of the Spokane Indians, work with math and reading tutors and talk with counselors.

Parents who didn’t learn about their Indian culture when they were young want their children to have what they missed.

Lyn Moss, 32, has two children in the program. Although she was raised on a reservation, her white adoptive parents sheltered her from Indian influences. She didn’t even know she was Indian until she was in fourth grade.

“The tribe had decided to send all Indians from the public and the mission schools to the circus. The teacher handed me a permission slip.

“I said, ‘Why do I get one?’

“She said, ‘Because you’re Indian.’

“I looked at her and said, ‘I am?”’

Indian Country melting pot

Organizers overcame obstacles to get the after-school program running in January. The original person hired to teach the culture classes quit, forcing organizers to rely on substitutes.

School buses weren’t available after school, so Austin contracted with a limousine service for roughly the same amount that would have been spent on school buses.

A chauffeured van equipped with a television and videocassette recorder picks up the students after school.

The driver delivers them to Bancroft School, a building in West Central Spokane that the district uses for special programs. Elementary schoolchildren come one day a week, while middle school and high school students come two days a week.

About 6:30 or 7 p.m., the van takes the students home, delivering them to their doors.

Austin purposefully hired only Native Americans to work with the students.

“They go through life and see their teachers are all white,” Austin says. “I wanted this to be different. I wanted them to look up to our people.”

Robert Evans, 14, an eighth-grader at Shaw Middle School, laughs with a friend during snack time.

“White men can’t powwow,” he jokes, then gets serious. “People always make fun of different-colored skin, especially Indians. It’s better here because you’ve got your own people here.”

Ironically, Evans’ light skin owes more to his Irish blood than to his Indian and Mexican ancestors. But he identifies most with his Mexican and Indian sides, he says.

JoAnn Hameline, 14, a Glover Middle School eighth-grader, also claims a diverse legacy. “Get ready for a long list,” she says when asked about her heritage.

“I’m Blackfeet, Cree, Sioux, German, Mexican, Italian and Irish,” she says. “My great-great-great uncle was Sitting Bull.”

Liberty Queen, 12, a seventh-grader at Shaw Middle School, says she is half Cherokee, half Russian and Irish. After thinking about it, she says her Russian and Irish heritage come from her foster mother. She’s not joking.

“Spokane is truly one of the melting pots of Indian Country,” says Patrick Weasel Head, an Indian education researcher in Portland.

Austin agrees. “A lot of urban (Indian) people I know are here because they don’t have an identity,” she says. “They try to lose themselves in the bigger places.”

But lack of cultural identity can lead to alcohol and drug abuse, says Toni Lodge of the NATIVE Project, a treatment and prevention center that is a co-sponsor with District 81 of the after-school center.

“Because of this program, I hopefully am not going to see these kids so furious and angry in treatment,” says Lodge, whose daughter is in the program.

‘Charlie is a good boy’

The program can receive federal money for two more years, leaving room for stability and growth. After that, where the money will come from is uncertain; the school district might have to turn to private foundations.

Charlie is drawing with a marker on the white board in Pinkham’s counseling room. The school district once used the room to store weapons confiscated from students.

“Charlie used to be real squirrelly when he came into the program,” Pinkham says. “You know squirrelly? That’s a little guy who used to run and not listen to anybody.”

“You’re not squirrelly anymore,” he says to Charlie. “Do you still cuss?”

No answer.

“Do you still say bad words?”

“Not anymore!” Charlie says.

“It’s good not to cuss,” Pinkham continues in a quiet voice. “It means you like yourself. You’re a good person. Charlie is a good boy.”

Pinkham squints at Charlie through his glasses. The counselor’s hair hangs on both sides of his face in two long braids. Some students at the Native Life Center have asked him if he’s a real Indian.

He replies, “Yes, and so are you.”

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