On April 6, 2022, R16CC delivered the third in a series of four virtual Share Our Voices, Hear Our Stories forums for the 2021 to 2022 school year. The forum’s theme was “Our Future: Rooted in Culture, Family, and History.” During this forum, parents and family members of Native American youth in Washington joined a storytelling session and discussed the role of cultural and family supports in promoting student well-being, success, and suicide prevention.
The R16CC WA Tribal Advisory Board:
- Cindy Kelly (Delaware Nation)
- Anthony Craig (Yakama Nation)
- Mary Wilber (Osoyoos Indian Band)
- Patsy Whitefoot (Yakama Nation)
- Jon Claymore (Cheyenne River Sioux)
Share Our Voices, Hear Our Stories April 6th gathering followed this agenda:
- Opening Prayer
- Introductions and Overview
- “Porcupine Song” – Dan Nanamkin
- Small-Group Discussion
- Next Steps and Closing
The forum opened with Mary Wilber (Osoyoos Indian Band), Native American Education Coordinator and R16CC WA Tribal Advisory Board Member, providing an opening prayer.
Jon Claymore (Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe), Executive Director of the Office of Native Education in the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction and R16CC WA Tribal Advisory Board Member, presented an overview of the project timeline. He noted that a recent survey of youth found elevated anxiety levels among students related to disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic. Next, he introduced the session’s facilitator, Jo Ann Kauffman (Nez Perce Tribe).
Jo Ann Kauffman reviewed the session’s agenda and ground rules. She then introduced Dan Nanamkin (Chief Joseph Band of Wallowa, Nez Perce, and Colville Confederated Tribes), the storyteller for the forum.
A summary of the story shared by Dan Nanamkin is as follows:
As a young girl, Smuxaxin lost her parents. Her grandmother raised her for a while, but then she, too, passed away.
Smuxaxin was sent away to another home, where she experienced abuse from an older child. Because she felt depressed and alone, Smuxaxin began to walk with her head down and withdraw from other people.
Smuxaxin felt that she had no one to talk to. She was hurt and ashamed, and she planned to end her life.
One day, Smuxaxin began walking up a hill, intending never to return. She climbed to the highest point, where she sat alone.
Smuxaxin began to listen, and she heard faint singing in the distance. She hid in the bushes near the trail and continued to listen. As the song grew louder, Smuxaxin saw that a porcupine was walking along the trail and singing.
When she greeted him, the porcupine told her that the animals saw her pain and wished to share this song to uplift her spirit and give her hope. He explained that Smuxaxin was connected to all life on Mother Earth and would never be alone.
He said, “We’re part of you, and you’re part of us.” The porcupine instructed Smuxaxin to share the song with others to encourage them and assure them that they are never alone.
This song was a gift for Smuxaxin to share with others during difficult times. Through this gift, she learned that all of us, including the earth and all life within it, can help strengthen one another. She learned that culture, stories, and songs are essential medicine.
Breakout Room Report-Outs
Participants reflected on the story above and responded to the following discussion questions in their virtual breakout rooms.
- If you had a chance to talk to Smuxaxin before they decided to walk up to the hills, what would you say to her?
- When Smuxaxin returned to her community to share her gifts, where were places or people she could go for help? What are places in your community or people you would go to?
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.
The Importance of Listening
Several participants noted that a key takeaway from the story was the importance of listening. They pointed to the pivotal moment in the story when Smuxaxin stopped to listen as the choice that likely saved her life.
In addition, participants explained that if someone in Smuxaxin’s life had listened to her, she might not have felt so alone. As many participants stated, it is critical that school staff and other adults listen to youth and recognize their struggles before the youth find themselves in crises.
The Power of Nature
As demonstrated by the porcupine in this story, the earth and all life within it play a key role in our lives, supporting us during times of struggle.
One of the participants noted, “We have equals in nature, and sometimes they’re the best council.”
Similarly, participants remarked that connecting to nature can help counteract feelings of loneliness.
One participant recommended reminding Smuxaxin that the world around her holds her sacred.
Another observed that spending time in nature near water could help comfort her.
The Role of Culture in Healing
As highlighted by several participants, culture is foundational to well-being, and various aspects of culture, from songs to storytelling to language, promote healing.
One participant emphasized the importance of providing a safe space within a mainstream school setting where Indigenous students can speak their Native languages. Native American education coordinators or other mentors can often create such a space.
The Importance of Connection with Others
Encouragement from other people was the most common theme in participants’ report-outs. Attendees emphasized the importance of noticing and relating to those who are struggling. One participant remarked, “We are all Smuxaxin, and we can all be the porcupine.”
Another participant pointed out that adults are responsible for connecting youth to services rather than expecting students to find support independently. He went on to say that all school staff are instrumental in supporting the well-being of students, noting, “You never know which interaction will be the one that connects with them.”
Identifying and assisting struggling youth requires a concerted and collaborative effort from all school personnel.
One participant highlighted the importance of checking in with youth who are reserved or model students, as they may be struggling but unsure of how to express their feelings.
Participants listed the following people whom Smuxaxin could seek out for help and support:
- Spiritual leaders
- Other students her age
- A counselor, Native American education coordinator, teacher, coach, or other school staff member
- Ancestors (such as by visiting ancestors in a cemetery or nature)
Participants agreed that showing interest in Smuxaxin, building a relationship with her, and learning about what brings her joy would provide a clearer understanding of her identity, strengths, and how best to help her. Also, modeling how to talk about difficult emotions and helping to match coping skills and support systems to individual youths are important approaches to supporting them during difficult times.
Timeline and Next Steps
Beth Geiger shared that the team has created a resource bank on the R16CC website, and she welcomed participants to share ideas for resources to include.
The fourth and final Share Our Voices, Hear Our Stories forum of the school year will occur on May 4.