Share Our Voices, Hear Our Stories is a series of forums designed to convene Native American families and students in Washington to inform the direction of education. The forums are hosted by 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, in collaboration with Kauffman & Associates, Inc (KAI). 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 who specifically focus on enhancing wellbeing and opportunities for Native American students in Washington.
On November 16, 2022, R16CC and KAI delivered the first Share Our Voices, Hear Our Stories session designed specifically for student participation. However, several parents and educators attended, as well. The forum began at 6 p.m. Pacific time with welcoming remarks and an opening blessing. Next, a storyteller shared a story that centered around friendship and trust. Following the storytelling session, the participants divided into breakout groups, where they shared and reflected on the story and their interpretations and takeaways. Participants then reconvened as a full group and reported on the ideas and themes that emerged from their breakout discussions. Finally, Beth Geiger, Washington Director at R16CC, reviewed the next steps.
The forum opened with an opening prayer from Mary Wilber (Osoyoo Indian Band), Native American Education Coordinator and R16CC WA Tribal Advisory Board Member.
Ms. Geiger welcomed the participants to the session. She said that the R16CC Tribal Advisory created the Share Our Voices, Hear Our Stories series to engage with Native American students and their families about the needs, opportunities, and challenges for Native American students in Washington. Each session follows a theme and includes a storytelling component, followed by small-group reflection. The focus of this session is to hear input from students.
Dr. Iris PrettyPaint (Blackfeet/Crow), the meeting facilitator, greeted the participants and reviewed the meeting 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.
Mr. Nanamkin began the storytelling session with a flute song. He encouraged audience members to think about the interconnectedness of all living things and what it means to be a good friend and relative. He then provided a brief overview of the history and significance of Indian hemp in the Methow Valley. Indian hemp fibers are very strong and can be used to make rope. Historically, tribes in the area would make hemp rope during the winter to trade with other tribes for resources they needed. He then shared a story. A summary of this story is as follows.
The main character in this story is a young man whose name means Black Bear. He had a best friend who was like a brother to him. They had grown up together. Eventually, Black Bear traveled far north, to what is now Kamloops, British Columbia. He brought a beautiful, well-liked girl on the trip with him. As his relationship with this girl blossomed, Black Bear began spending less time with his best friend. He decided he wanted to marry the girl and start a family with her.
As time went on, the girl and Black Bear’s best friend started to develop feelings for one another, but they knew that acting on these feelings was forbidden. They began to sneak around and made plans on how they could be together. They decided to bring Black Bear to a cliff under the guise of asking him to collect eagle feathers, where they would stage an accident.
As the three journeyed to the cliff, they gathered hemp along the way to make rope. When they arrived, they saw an eagle nest with fledglings in it far down the cliff face. They made rope from hemp, tested it, and then lowered it until it reached the nest. Black Bear tied the rope around his waist and descended, fully relying on the strength of the Indian hemp to hold his weight. As he gathered enough feathers to fill several bags, his friends brought the rope up. When Black Bear was done, he waited and waited for them to lower the rope once again. He called for them but heard nothing. A cut piece of rope dropped to the ground near him. At first, he thought perhaps they were leaving to find help, but eventually, he realized they would not return.
Black Bear feared that he would be in danger when the parent eagles returned to the nest, but they did not harm him. He stayed with the nest for a long time, and as the baby birds grew, he survived by eating the food the parents brought to the fledglings. The birds continued to grow larger, and Black Bear knew they would soon be ready to fly. He tied some of the hemp rope around himself and around the legs of the eagles. When they flew, he went with them. Eventually, they landed on the shore, and they untied him. He thanked them for what they had done in saving his life before flying away.
When Black Bear returned to the community, he learned that his best friend and the girl had been banished for what they had done to him. He understood then that he had lost his best friend but gained a beautiful blessing from the eagles. He saw the importance of thanking other living things that give us life and help us when we are in need, respecting and valuing our relationships, and always appreciating our families and communities. Mr. Nanamkin mentioned that we are reminded of this story today when visiting that beach area and the descendants of those eagles are still there, and when we gather hemp to make cordage and fine things, such as the hemp bag shared at the beginning of the story.
Breakout Room Report-Outs
In their virtual breakout rooms, participants reflected on the story above and responded to the following discussion questions.
- What does a positive friendship or relationship mean to you? Where did you meet the people you have these connections with?
- What in the story shares a connection and respect to the land?
- Where else do you hear these lessons?
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.
Many participants drew a parallel between Black Bear’s story and the importance of positive relationships in which we are accepted as our authentic selves. Strong, healthy relationships with friends, family, and members of the community help us to grow and support the growth of others in turn. Being a good friend and relative means being trustworthy and honest, listening to others, and providing comfort to others. Just as braiding hemp makes a rope that is stronger than individual strands of hemp, healthy relationships are the braiding of yourself, your family, and your community together—everyone is strengthened this way.
Courage and Strength
One of the participants observed that the eagles in this story appear to represent bravery and strength. By relying on the eagles to help him escape, Black Bear relied on his own courage and resilience. Similarly, when we reach low points in life, we must use courage and strength to overcome these struggles.
Connections to the Land
Several participants highlighted the story’s message about the importance of honoring our connections to the land. This means giving back to the land, not taking more than we need from it, and taking care of it as we would care for ourselves and our loved ones.
Timeline and Closing
Beth Geiger thanked the storyteller and the participants for their involvement. She emphasized that R16CC would like to hear from Native American students on what is working well in school and what challenges are present. She welcomed students to provide feedback for shaping future Share Our Voices, Hear Our Stories sessions and on how to reach additional Native American students for these events.
The next Share Our Voices, Hear Our Stories session will be a listening session for families on December 7 at 6 p.m. Pacific time.
Region 16 Comprehensive Center engages State, regional, tribal, school, and community partners to improve the quality and equity of education for each student by providing evidence-based services and supports. It is a network of 29 educational service districts in Alaska, Oregon, and Washington and seeks to be a responsive and innovative partner guided by the needs of educators and communities to improve educational outcomes.