Tribal youth opts for canoe during fourth-grade lesson

08.12.2011 Dean Rhodes Culture, People, Education

Tribal member David Lewis's interest in and excitement about Tribal culture has been passed down to his 10-year-old son, Saghaley, who just finished fourth grade and also is a member of the Tribe.

You might call it historical success, the flip side of historical trauma.

When the boy's fourth-grade class at Swegle Elementary in Salem was making models of Oregon Trail-type wagons, "We encouraged him to make a canoe instead," said Lewis, who is manager of the Tribe's Cultural Resources Department.

Saghaley liked the idea right away.

This story played out just as the Willamette Heritage Center at the Mill canoe exhibit was ending its run in May.

"He looked at the exhibit as a way to learn more about the canoes," David said. "He took some pictures and then we created a small canoe for him and he painted it.

"At first, his teacher said, 'We don't want him to look different,' but we said, 'This is inappropriate for him as an Indian. Why not do something more appropriate for his culture?'

"He's presenting a different story of history and culture to his class. Everybody's of one mind with pioneers and wagons; Natives used canoes. Why can't we (as Natives) feature that history? In public education today, there is not enough emphasis on Native culture."

As a child, Lewis also attended Swegle Elementary, and noted, "Education about Oregon Indians was nonexistent in my educational experience. What I did get was the history of Native people who helped with western expansion, like Sacagawea, who served as a guide and translator for the Lewis and Clark expedition."

"So, for Oregon, for education over the past 30 years, not much has changed.

"It's an issue of historical, cultural competency for the school district itself."

Toward the end of the school year, when the day came for students to wheel around their covered wagons, Saghaley wheeled the canoe around the school.

"Saghaley's project did stand out," said Lewis, "and he was asked many questions by other students. We hope this opened up some possibilities for the students that they will explore later in their lives."

Today, the canoe sits in the Lewis living room.

"We're very proud of being a part of it," Lewis said. "There is only a small window in fourth grade for education about Tribal history, and we need to continue to push for culturally diverse and relevant education for all students."