Isaac Tonasket has found his voice.
A direct descendant of the Spokane Tribe of Indians and a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, Tonasket is working to start a drum circle at Wellpinit High School, where he is a senior.
In so doing, Tonasket said, he is carrying forward a family tradition and encouraging his peers to take part in that tradition, too.
“I like to think of it as medicine, because you’re bringing back something that your ancestors did,” he said.
Tonasket wants to get 12 to 15 middle and high school students to form a group with him and begin to learn songs, discovered recently by the Spokane tribe, that his great-grandparents once sang. Tonasket has sung most of his life but stopped when his father died six years ago. He only recently picked up his drum again.
“Before I showed anyone I could sing, my mom was telling me that my voice and my power can heal,” Tonasket said. “It’s like a medicine.”
Tonasket is forming the drum circle for his senior project with support from the Spokane Tribal Network. The network is located at the school and runs various initiatives, including a mentoring program. Sarah McNew, with the Spokane Tribal Network, said the program took a while to create because they developed their own.
“We wanted to make it more culturally relevant,” she said.
So far, 21 youths are paired with adult mentors in the community, and many students have expressed interest in learning about Spokane tribal heritage and culture, McNew said. In November, some mentor-mentee pairs met to make dreamcatchers after school. The network has hosted other events for students to make ribbon skirts or learn traditional plant-based medicine with their mentors.
Carol Evans, chairwoman of the Spokane Tribal Business Council, said it’s important that students are embracing the culture and traditions.
“They are our future and it’s exciting,” Evans said.
November is Native American Heritage Month, as it has been since President George H.W. Bush made it so in 1990. But Evans said she lives out her culture year-round, not just this month.
“Our culture, and our way of life, and the way we do things, is not just one month out of the year. It’s what we live and what we do,” Evans said. “We don’t turn on a light switch and turn it off for one month of the year. We have different things we do throughout the year that we learn from our ancestors.”
Thanksgiving, of course, occurs during Native American Heritage Month. Evans said the Spokane Tribe recognizes Thanksgiving as well as Christmas as holidays.
“That’s all a part of what we do today, whereas way back, we did not,” she said.
Some Native Americans celebrate Thanksgiving as an American holiday with their families, but some observers have argued that Thanksgiving deserves critical examination.
The first Thanksgiving feast was not a time of reflection and prayer, but a Pilgrim celebration and party with gunfire that drew the Wampanoags to the Pilgrims, thinking they were in danger, the historian Philip Deloria recently wrote in the New Yorker. And while the Pilgrims and Wampanoags feasted for three days in November 1621, the Pilgrims beheaded a Wampanoag leader’s son a few decades later.
“We falsely remember a Thanksgiving of intercultural harmony,” Deloria wrote. “Perhaps we should recall instead how English settlers cheated, abused, killed and eventually drove Wampanoags into a conflict … that was one of the most devastating wars in the history of North American settlement.”
Tiffany Midge, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation who lives in Moscow, Idaho, uses humor to “take back” Thanksgiving.
“It was mine to begin with,” Midge wrote in 2017. “You were just appropriating it to satisfy your need for some happy-go-lucky fairytale in the midst of crimes against humanity.”
For Midge, Thanksgiving is just another day, she said.
Long before white settlers arrived in the Pacific Northwest, local tribes had their own traditions during the harvest season.
Rodney Cawston, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, said many tribes would traditionally give thanks before they went out to harvest salmon, berries or roots. Today, however, many tribes do not have access to those traditional foods or lands, in part because reservation lands are not necessarily located where tribes resided.
“There are so many things challenging tribes, from development to agriculture, that took away those sites where we gathered our foods,” Cawston said. “We don’t have access to those areas anymore.”
The Upper Columbia United Tribes recently completed the first phase of a plan to return salmon to the northern Columbia River for the first time in nearly 80 years. When the Grand Coulee and Chief Joseph dams were erected, salmon stopped running north. UCUT focuses on conservation and environmental projects, but DR Michel, the group’s executive director, emphasized that UCUT’s work impacts everyone, not just tribal members.
“It’s our responsibility to take care of these things, and we’re just here for a short amount of time,” Michel said. “It’s important to the tribes, and it should be to everyone that we leave things better than we had it.”
The land belonging to the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation encompasses Okanogan and Ferry counties, but its 12 member tribes used to live farther north, in what is now British Columbia, and all throughout modern-day Eastern Washington and Oregon.
This month, the Colville Tribes signed an agreement in principle with the city of Pasco and bought land just north of the city.
Cawston said the tribe is considering opening a gaming operation as well as cultural and educational programs on the site. One of the confederated tribes, the Palus, lived along the Columbia River and in the region just north of modern-day Pullman. The name “Pasco” is derived from a Palus place name, Pasx̌a.
“We want to reconnect our people back to our original homelands in any way we can,” Cawston said.
Jessie Isadore, of the Kalispel Tribe of Indians, is working to connect her community back to Salish, the language the Kalispel tribe spoke. She has worked for more than a decade to learn Salish herself and to teach adults and children the language. Only three or four elders alive today are fluent, she said.
There are several dialects of inner plains Salish spoken by several tribes from North Idaho and Eastern Washington. The Kalispel Tribe offers Salish language lessons for young children in daycare, as well as an immersion school program for kindergarten through fifth-grade students. Adults also can learn in a program that Isadore teaches. Isadore, who lives on the Kalispel reservation, said the language is coming back to the community.
“You can hear it anywhere,” Isadore said. “People greet me all the time (in Salish) when I go places. Kids stand up and pray at events and gatherings. It’s coming alive in the community again.”
Isadore gets to learn Salish directly from the elders in her community, she said.
“Sharing that time with them and listening to all of the things they have to share and their wisdom and knowledge and being able to pass that on to the kids – my own kids included – and people in the communities, it’s fulfilling,” she said.
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