Share Our Voices, Hear Our Stories is a series of forums designed to convene Native American and Alaska Native students and families to inform efforts to create an education system where Native students can thrive in Washington. The Region 16 Comprehensive Center (R16CC), one of the 19 centers funded by the U.S. Department of Education to support states in enhancing student success, sponsors these forums. R16CC, which comprises a network of 29 educational service districts throughout Alaska, Oregon, and Washington, has a Tribal advisory board for the state of Washington that specifically focuses on enhancing wellbeing and opportunities for Native students in Washington. The R16CC Washington Tribal Advisory Board hosts the Share Our Voices, Hear Our Stories forums in collaboration with Kauffman & Associates, Inc. (KAI).
On March 29, 2023, R16CC and KAI delivered a session in the Share Our Voices, Hear Our Stories series focused on Celebrations of Spring. Notably, this session marked the final forum for the 2022–23 school year. The forum followed the following agenda:
- Opening words
- Introductions and overview
- Celebrations of Spring — Arlie Neskahi
- Small group discussion
- Next steps and closing
Beth Geiger, Washington Director for R16CC, welcomed the participants to the session and introduced Mary Wilber (Osoyoos Indian Band), R16CC Washington Tribal Advisory member, offered a thoughtful opening.
Ms. Geiger reviewed the background and purpose of the ongoing Share Our Voices, Hear Our Stories series. She explained that the intent of these forums is to create a space for Native students, families, and community members to discuss experiences with education in Washington state and reflect on lessons and connections provided through story. Since September 2020, four of these sessions have been held per school year.
Dr. Aislinn Rioux (Blackfeet Tribe), the meeting facilitator, greeted the participants and reviewed the meeting agenda and practices for making the best use of the evening’s time. She then introduced Arlie Neskahi (Diné), the storyteller for the forum.
For the storytelling session, Mr. Neskahi shared an experience from his own life, which is summarized as follows:
A few years ago, I was traveling to Chinle, AZ, to perform with my drum group, White Eagle Singers. My wife and I were driving near Shiprock, NM, and my wife suggested that we visit the place where I grew up, which was nearby. We turned and began to drive north of Shiprock. I saw the place where my mother used to bring my siblings and me to gather wild onions when I was a teenager.
My mother was a wonderful woman who passed away in 1996. She was well-loved and well-respected. She had nine children, and she always attended our sporting events. She loved to spend time outside and to hunt and fish. She was sent to boarding school as a child, where she grew up in a strict Christian environment. I was the first person in my family who was not sent to boarding school. As a teenager, I became interested in powwow singing, and my family began to find our way back to our culture. My mother did not talk much about Diné ceremonies or traditions, but she always made sure Traditional Foods were available for us to eat.
My mother’s mother was a trained herbalist and the daughter of a medicine man. She taught my mother about gathering plants. She helped me learn about gathering medicines and foods, too, but sadly, her teachings were limited because she was fearful about teaching our traditional ways due to impacts of Christianity.
During our drive, my wife and I stopped at the place where my family used to gather wild onions. We walked around, searching for onions, but we could not find any at first. As we walked, I remembered that the onions would often be more plentiful where the rainwater and melted snow would flow down. I stood on a hill and looked over the land, and I noticed a small gulley. I followed the gulley down the hill, and when I reached the bottom of the hill, there was the first onion. I called my wife over. Strong feelings came over me: memories of the beauty of the springtime, when the days get warmer, and stories my grandmother told me about the plants that emerge in the spring.
I talked to the plants and told them who I am. I said, “I remember you. I came here with my mother. My grandmother has come here, too. You’ve always helped us, and it’s good to see you.” My wife and I put down an offering and began to gather the plants. Then, we went to my family’s house, where my brother and his family now live, and told them about gathering the onions. We shared the moments of exhilaration, remembering how much joy my mother and grandmother would experience when they gathered wild onions.
I often tell Native youth that when we do things in a traditional way, as our people have been doing since time immemorial, we enter a timeline of eternity. As we gather these plants and as we teach others to gather them, we look back at those who gathered them before us and think about people who will hold these onions in their hands in the future.
As we come out of the Winter season, our Plant Relatives greet us. As we touch the Earth to gather them, we engage with our relatives and cherish our lifeways and our deep relationship with the Earth. My mother used to worry that she was failing her children because she was not continuing in teaching us devout Christian ways, but I thank her for laying the groundwork for us to follow our traditional ways and understand who we are as Diné People. This she did through making sure we always ate our traditional foods and being mindful of their origins.
Mr. Neskahi shared a short video that showed Arnold Clifford, a Diné ethnobotanist, gathering wild onions. The Diné call them Tloh Chin, which means “the grass that smells.”
Breakout Discussion Report-Outs
Participants divided into virtual breakout rooms, where they reflected on the story above and responded to the following discussion questions.
- What are some of the gifts of Earth Woman this spring season?
- How do plants emerging from the ground relate to us coming out of the cold and dark of winter?
- Why is this such a deep, loving, spiritual, and enlivening memory/experience for Arlie?
- What of our spring world (plants, animals, weather, waters, etc.) brings out the Spirit of Celebration in you?
When the participants returned from their virtual breakout rooms, they shared what they had discussed. The following sections summarize key themes from these report-outs.
Participants characterized springtime as a time for renewing our connection to the natural world. They highlighted the following as some of the gifts that spring provides.
- New sights, sounds, and smells, like blooming daffodils and birdsongs
- The awakening of bears, bees, and other animals
- The migration of whales
- The emergence of many plants, such as blackberries, bitterroots, and nettles
- Bright colors
- New beginnings and new life
- Springtime celebrations and ceremonies
- More daylight
- Warm weather and sunshine
- Cleansing from rain and windstorms
- A reconnection with the water, such as a return to canoeing
- Planting season, which offers opportunities to spend time with and create memories with family, thank the plants for their role in our wellbeing, and teach children about relationships with plants
One participant said, “We feel a lot of power in the newness that comes about this time of year.”
Connection and Relationships
Much of the discussion focused on connections people have with one another and with the earth and other beings, including a deep relationship with plants. Participants highlighted the connection with our ancestors that comes from practicing traditional ways.
Participants drew many parallels between humans and our plant relatives. Just like plants, we are resilient. Like our plant relatives, we, too, experience the darkness of winter, followed by a season of growth. A balanced and nourishing environment supports resilience during the winter and growth during the spring.
One participant shared, “We transition from the ceremony that we do in winter and apply those teachings to the new growth we see around us in the spring.”
The responsibility to care for our plant and animal relatives is a key component of our interconnectedness with all life. As one participant pointed out, Indigenous communities have been protecting and preserving natural resources since time immemorial.
A participant highlighted our relationships with plants as a source of stability. While relationships between people continually evolve, we can rely on plants to appear around the same time every year. Another participant noted that plants and their rebirth during springtime also teach us about perseverance.
Timeline and Next Steps
Ms. Geiger thanked all of those who have joined the 2022–23 Share Our Voices, Hear Our Stories forums. She asked participants to complete a survey to support the continued improvement of these forums. This session marked the final forum for the 2022–23 school year.
Ivy Pete (Pyramid Lake Paiute/Blackfeet), 2022 Champion for Change for the Center for Native American Youth, provided closing comments. She emphasized the importance of continuing to provide spaces like this forum for conversations about how to best support Native American youth.
We hope to see you next year!
The R16CC WA Tribal Advisory Board:
- Anthony Craig (Yakama Nation)
- Cindy Kelly (Delaware Nation)
- Mary Wilber (Osoyoos Indian Band)
- Patsy Whitefoot (Yakama Nation)
- Shandy Abrahamson (Confederated Tribes of the Colville)