When Mary Wahpat steps off the yellow school bus onto a remote section of the Yakama Indian Reservation, the 15-year-old student becomes the teacher.
Wahpat, a ninth-grader at the Yakama Tribal School in Toppenish, pads slowly over the rocky mountain meadow, searching for edible roots like lammush and bitterroot, traditional foods of the Yakamas.
A few tribal school students watch as Wahpat uses a kupin, a T-shaped metal bar, to loosen the hard-packed dirt around the roots.
In times past, kupin were made from deer antler. Women and men roamed the hills in search of sustenance, from celery in winter to the huckleberries of late summer.
Today, Wahpat removes the wide, grass-like top of a bitterroot plant, leaving a clump of narrow, tangled roots. The skin of the root will be peeled away, Wahpat explains, leaving the root stalk to eat.
One girl, less familiar with root digging, asks Wahpat for the top of the plant to use as a guide before hunting roots on her own.
For the past two years, teachers have taken students on a spring field trip to the reservation to dig roots. This year, about 50 students - roughly half the student body - attended the excursion.
“Sometimes it’s the first time they’ve participated in traditional activities,” said tribal school administrator Anita Swan.
Founded in 1980 as an alternative school for Indian children who couldn’t cope in the public school system, the tribal school is changing into a private school focusing on the Yakama culture.
“Some of the younger people seem to feel that our elders are the ones who will retain the old ways,” said Edward Wahshins, chairman of the tribe’s four-member education committee. “But as we all know, people leave this earth. And when those elders leave, (today’s youth) will become the elders.”
The school, funded by the Yakama Nation and the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, is offered to American Indian students free of charge. The one-story building in Toppenish is one of 184 BIA-sponsored schools in the country.
In its 15-year history, the tiny tribal school has graduated 133 students. This year, 13 are expected to leave with high school diplomas.
In the past, those students came to the tribal school because of problems in the public schools, Swan said. Today, more are drawn by the culture-based curriculum.
An enrolled member of the Yakama Nation, Swan joined the school in 1991, shortly after tribal leaders began pushing for more education in the traditional ways.
“They’re trying to make sure that the students were able to reclaim their heritage,” Swan said.
Past government policies toward Indians have focused on assimilation, Swan said, and in the process many have forgotten the traditional ways.
In an effort to preserve the culture, the school requires all students to take a class in Sahaptin, the native tongue of many southeast Washington tribes, including the Umatilla, Wanapum and WarmSprings Indians.
Yakama history is woven into an American history course, and the study of native plants is incorporated into science classes.
The school offers elective courses in Yakama arts, drumming and singing, and field trips to dig roots and pick huckleberries.
At the same time, the school retains aspects of an alternative facility. The hallways are lined with posters espousing anti-drug messages, and the school has two drug-recovery support groups - one for students entering treatment, the other for those who have completed therapy.
The school serves students in grades seven through 12, another vestige of its alternative-school beginnings.
Sophomore Kim Quill, 17, enrolled in the tribal school last year with her family’s blessing, but faced opposition when she took up tribal drumming. Quill’s family participates in the Shaker religion, which she said forbids drumming.
“A couple of times my grandmother tried to get me to stop,” Quill said. “But I said, ‘I can’t.’ It’s in my veins, I guess.”
Leah Marceau, a quiet 18-year-old, recently moved to the area from her tribe in Montana. A senior, she dreams of going away to college and later working for Indian rights. Marceau said she fears an erosion of Indian rights and Indian lands.
Quill, referring to students who disavow traditional activities, said “it’s like they’re too cool for it.”
“And if they do go to a powwow, it’s like they’re standing in a dark corner,” said William Hill, 15.
Before they left the class, Arquette insisted the students practice one song. After a brief discussion, they decided on a welcome song sometimes performed at powwows.
Basketball is the tribal school’s only organized sport. Backed by an eagle mascot similar to the eagle found in the Yakama Nation flag, the boys and girls teams compete with other private schools in the Greater Columbia B League. This year, both teams made it to the league playoffs, a first for the girls team, and the second time for the boys.
Sarah Wahsise, a slender 18-yearold and mother of a 1-year-old boy, said she enrolled in the tribal school earlier this year to get away from “other races putting Indians down. Like, they’ll call us a bunch of drunk Indians and stuff. I got tired of it.”
Wahsise said she’ll probably teach her baby the Yakama traditions - and may start participating in traditional activities herself. Her grandmother has been after her to take up traditional dancing.
“I used to do it,” Wahsise said. “I just got wild, I guess.”