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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘Watch and learn from our children’: The Native Project breaks ground on new youth wellness center inspired by the kids it will serve

Native American children use root diggers to make a hole to drop in a small amount of tobacco Friday as an offering to the Creator during The Native Project’s groundbreaking ceremony for the future children and youth wellness center.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Seven gray stones and four colorful ones are positioned into a circle on the Native Project’s logo.

Each gray stone represents seven past generations, while the colorful ones represent the future. In Indigenous culture, children are the true teachers. Their fresh spirits are unaware of the cold world ahead and hold light, hope and direction.

One of the Native Project’s four main objectives is to ensure and expand children and youth wellness, a mission upheld Friday, as a dozen Indigenous children broke ground on the Native Project’s newest addition to its Maxwell Avenue campus: a children and youth wellness center for a healthier generation.

“We have to create space for healing, for our community, and this building allows them a space of healing,” said Turtle Mountain Chippewa member Toni Lodge said, executive director of the Native Project.

“… Our children, they’re going to show us how to build this place … they’re going to show us what we need to do and how we build our future, and the adults are going to watch and learn from our children what we need to do.”

The new building will provide traditional therapy and wellness practices, but also Indigenous practices. Lodge said the main goal is to create things that will engage young minds. Lodge took advice from one of her granddaughters.

“What she was saying was, ‘Don’t build it like a therapy center or even a school,’ ” Lodge said. “Build a drumming house, a singing room, and I thought, ‘Yeah, we can design this as multipurpose.’ ”

Lodge will likely coordinate the new youth-centered wellness initiatives with Spokane tribal member Dave Madera, the Cultural Specialist of the Native Project. Madera worked closely with the children and their performances for the groundbreaking ceremony. He also served as the event’s master of ceremonies.

The groundbreaking took place across the street from the Native Project’s building. To open the ceremony, Kalispel elder Francis Cullooyah, whose Indian name ‘Tšišulex,’ translates to ‘standing on the ground,’ spoke to the importance of centering children, while offering praise to Lodge for her dedication and work. Cullooyah will be honored with a room of his own in the new building.

“It’s important for me to note that my life and the life of many of us are well, and we are well in heart because of concepts (such as) the Native Project,” Cullooyah said. “… As we gain new life, each and every day, such as these children that are in the center, it gives us hope, it keeps us in hope.”

After dancing in their traditional jingle dresses and other traditional garb, children, mostly students at the Spokane Salish School, broke ground with root diggers.

Afterward, board members, donors and others who assisted the Native Project with bringing the new center into fruition broke ground. Once the soil was dug into, tobacco ties, an offering to Mother Earth, were placed where the three-story wellness clinic is set to be.

On the corner of Elm and Maxwell, the Native Project hosted a block party to commemorate the groundbreaking ceremony, along with their 33-year anniversary.

The children were the main performers of the block party, as the young award-winning dancers re-enacted the shawl dance and fancy war dance commonly seen at powwows. Madera provided context to the dances and their Indigenous meanings, citing the shawl dance as an reenactment of a butterfly wing’s soft grace.

Celebrating the two milestones was a full circle moment for Joyce Swan, a Coeur d’Alene elder who broke ground on the Native Project’s current building.

She served as the center’s first treatment director. She also played a role in opening the Healing Lodge of the Seven Nations, another Native-centered health clinic in Spokane Valley.

“To finally get to the younger ones, I think that’s really valuable and I think it’s going to do a lot for the children,” said Swan, who has worked as a child therapist her entire career. “I’m not too sure with all they’re doing, but to have the children here and working together is so important.”

Indigenous entities across the region supported the ceremony. Juicy Pig, a small, Indigenous-owned business, provided lunch. The award-winning barbecue operates an hour away from the Spokane reservation.

Vendors formed a market in the block party, as a small business called My Sister’s Earrings sold homemade jewelry and another promoted 12-hour smoked beef jerky that went for $20 a pound. Partygoers had the opportunity to receive their COVID-19 vaccinations or boosters along with the option to sign up for the Native Project’s services.

Lodge said the events were a reflection of The Native Project’s goal to expand. They have two blocks of land to propose more community wellness.

While it took seven years to get the childhood center approved, the community’s participation suggests it will be a worthwhile challenge.

Robert Stevens, who worked as a community engagement specialist at a Molina Healthcare table at the event, noted the importance of centering children in healing, citing that community solidarity as a critical aspect.

“I look around and I see so many different cultures here this morning, everyone together for one purpose, which is bettering the community and our health,” Stevens said.

“To see that as our common goal, especially among the marginalized communities and recognizing their need for that extra push … it says a lot about the strength of our community.”