Editor’s note: This guest essay is part of Education Lab’s Student Voices program. Read more columns by local students here.
Because I didn’t grow up on my reservation, Neah Bay, I’ve always lived somewhat apart from my Native identity. In the dominant culture outside the reservation, Native people are either invisible or stand as token monuments when they are visible, like the wooden Indian outside of a cigar store — always present, but never part of the fabric of a living, breathing community.
In urban environments like Seattle, the population of Native American people is relatively small. In my time in Seattle Public Schools, from kindergarten through sixth grade, I did not meet any other Native American students.
When I talk to my Native peers who attended Seattle Public Schools, they also describe the very few Native students in their schools (0.6% of district students in 2016). They lament how difficult it is to form a Native community or club when the numbers are so small.
Growing up, I still honored my Native identity during family functions and every summer on the Canoe Journey, but I subconsciously straddled different worlds. As a student, I assumed that my Native identity was not relevant to the world beyond my family. It was a part of me that, during school hours, simply laid dormant.
I started attending the Urban Native Education Alliance’s (UNEA) Clear Sky Youth Council soon after it was founded in 2008, when I was in fifth grade. I attended sporadically and wasn’t part of the core community, but it was nice to partake in cultural activities and be with other Native youth during the school year. I began to get more involved in high school through service projects and I started to hear how much the UNEA programs meant to students.
However, it was only after I graduated from high school that I fully experienced the benefits of Clear Sky. I did not attend college immediately following my graduation. That year, I volunteered at Clear Sky. I attended the twice-weekly sessions and gradually became a regular in a community that included Native American elders, parents, college-aged mentors and youth. At Clear Sky I saw other Natives and was reminded of who I am. Natives in the program saw a part of me invisible to most people, revealed only when I am among others who know who I am without explanation.
Clear Sky’s cultural programming helped me connect with my heritage. Practicing singing and drumming, learning to weave cedar, drawing traditional formline art — things I’d normally only be exposed to on the rez — I could learn at Clear Sky. Developing these skills helped me feel closer to my tribe even though I spend most of the year away from the reservation.
The activities had benefits in my school life, too. Clear Sky exposed me to the cultural practices of tribes across the United States and taught me about contemporary issues facing Indian Country. I drew on this knowledge when organizing Native-centered events for the Native club at my high school, and I have continued to use this knowledge while organizing events for the Stanford American Indian Organization.
Clear Sky also helped affirm my identity through the opportunity to mentor. As a volunteer, I helped a shy elementary student gain academic and cultural confidence. It was beyond fulfilling to help younger students benefit from a program that had such a large impact on me. I was now taking a more active role in the urban Indian community and was given another level of ownership over my heritage: I was in charge of passing it on.
Since the 1800s, American Indian boarding schools — established with the goal of assimilating Native American youth — ran on the motto of “Kill the Indian, and Save the Man.” Today, urban education systems threaten to continue stripping Native students of their culture by serving their academic needs while neglecting their cultural ones, which alienates students from both their heritage and their school environment.
Seattle Public Schools recently ended its partnership with the Alliance, but I hope the board and administrators recognize Clear Sky’s invaluable contributions to the Seattle Native community. Perhaps there are ways the program should improve, and I hope the community can have a say in its reforms. But if we want future generations of Native students to be successful in Seattle schools, we must continue to preserve the core tenets of Clear Sky: community, culture and mentorship.