The children learn that applewood beats birch for smoking the tastiest elk meat.
They click on power-MacIntosh computers - there’s one for every child and teacher - to learn new words in their own language.
They are taught the cultural significance of a tribal “giveaway,” as they bead necklaces, pouches, mini teepees and key chains for the big event.
Today, the $5 million Coeur d’Alene Tribal School is celebrating its grand opening with a feast at 5 p.m. and traditional dancing to follow. The Saturday evening giveaway children are busily making knickknacks for is typical of the tribe’s value system. When you hold a celebration, your guests don’t bring gifts, they go away with them.
“You are recognized more by what you can give to other people,” explained Tribal School Board Chairman John Abraham. “It’s too thank people for coming.”
Today will be the first opportunity for the public to tour the school, built more than 20 years after the tribe first requested it from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
The new structure sits, ironically, in the shadow of the tall Catholic mission where some Coeur d’Alene Indian children were chastised for speaking their native tongue as part of the federal government’s previous efforts to quash Indian culture in education.
Today, the feds have built a reservation school where feathers and bells are given as academic incentives, where traditional dancing is part of the physical education program, and the plight of the Coeur d’Alenes is covered in U.S. history class.
“Up on top of the hill they took the language away,” explained Abraham. “but the children down here are involved in relearning that language.”
At the request of the five-member school board, culture plays a prominent role across the curriculum. The designs and shapes integrated into woven baskets are used to teach geometry, for example.
The school’s 100 K-8 students are Indian and non-Indian. Required by the federal government to charge tuition for non-Indians, the school board set the fee at $1. It’s usually waived.
“It’s important for the tribe to have the non-Indians involved because it is an educational issue,” Abraham said. “… and many families are poor here. They don’t have the money.”
Prior to this year, Tribal School was held in Desmet’s community center. The old building, which featured a carpeted gymnasium, now houses the tribe’s elder and youth programs. While most kids say they like the new school, one detractor spoke up Friday.
“It’s like a prison,” complained eighth-grader Patrice Goddard. Teachers admit they’ve instigated more rules to protect the new structure and set a strict new disciplinary standard. Goddard’s prison analogy may have more to do with the 6-foot chain link fence topped with barbed wire going up around the entire school grounds. Board members insist the fence is to keep teenage vandals out, not the grade-schoolers in.
While the school was primarily built with federal funds, the Tribe donated $310,000 in gaming money to the school this year for extras like incentive programs. A new incentive for Fifth-through eighth-grade students rewards those who do great deeds with a ticket to an upcoming Portland Trailblazers basketball game.
“They take care of us here,” said P.E. teacher Brian Hall, walking through the new gymnasium, where the retractable basketball backboards have been lowered to a child’s level.
There’s a washer and dryer for dirty towels and smelly socks in the lockerroom, next to Hall’s office and private restroom. Speakers, wired to an expensive soundboard, are suspended from the gym’s ceiling. The sound system even came with a wireless microphone and hearing aids for hearing-impaired children or guests.
Stainless steel industrial cooking equipment gleams inside the school’s kitchen.
“Is this a kitchen or is this a kitchen?” said a beaming Alice Pluff, longtime cook for the school.
At the old school, Pluff had one oven. She warmed the hamburgers, and then took them out of the oven to warm the french fries. Often, half the meal was cold. Now, she moves between a confection oven, a cooking oven and several warmers. A trash can washer frees her from the dirty job of mucking food from the bins after meals. She’s got a walk-in freezer, a dry storage room, a personal office and restroom.
“We never have to leave the kitchen,” Pluff said. “This is heaven after 21 years. This is one happy cook.”
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