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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


February 23, 2002 - Issue 55


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Telling Indian Stories

by Bert Caldwell of the Spokesman Review
credits: blooming camas

blooming camasAn elder speaks, recalling the place where tribal members once dug for camas bulbs.

A computer screen displays the countryside and a basket used for collecting the camas.

A student rotates the basket on the screen, studying the design, perhaps looking for the imperfection deliberately left by the weaver.

Without leaving the classroom, the sixth-grader has shared an experience from generations ago.

By next fall, such experiences could be common in regional classrooms.

Mary Lewis and Wendy Schneider say a project they expect to launch next month could introduce a culture that even people knowledgeable about Native Americans have overlooked.

Star Nation Lifeways will be linked to the Web site of Spokane's Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture.

The site also will be linked to Anchorage and the Alaskan Heritage Museum, which is collaborating on the project.

Visitors to the MAC site will have access to the Northern Plateau tribes that have inhabited the upper reaches of the Columbia River basin for millenniums.

Lewis and Schneider say the link will serve as teaching tool, cultural repository and community center.

There is much to be done. Even the Smithsonian Institution has an imperfect sense of who the Plateau tribes are, said Lewis, a member of the Spokane Tribe.

She once inquired about the institute's collection of objects from the Salish. She was shown items from the Salish, true enough, but it was the Salish tribe of the Pacific Coast, not the Salish-speaking nations of the interior.

The exhibits contained almost nothing of the Plateau people, she said.

Schneider said she became aware of an historical blind spot during work a few years ago on a grant for commemoration of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

"Nobody was telling the history from the Indian point of view," she said.

Shortly afterward, she met Peter Campbell, the late director of MAC's Center for Plateau Cultural Studies.

Campbell, Schneider said, saw the potential benefits of integrating electronic learning with the Mac's collection of more than 60,000 photographs, clothing, tools and other cultural items.

A consortium -- Star Nations Lifeways -- was created to pursue that goal. Participating groups are MAC, Washington's Educational Service District 101, the Technology for Learning Consortium and the American Indian Cultural Council, composed of representatives from the Spokane, Coeur d'Alene, Kalispel and Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation.

Schneider works for the Technology for Learning Consortium, a group of consultants based in New England. So does Lewis, but as a liaison with the museum and the cultural council.

The two women were born into education, and are fascinated by technology. But they bring far different perspectives to Lifeways.

Schneider began her career as a teacher after graduating from Brigham Young University in 1978, first in high school, then at the elementary level. She moved to California as a textbook consultant for Harcourt Brace.

That experience, she said, was brutal. "You see how politics runs education," she said.

Optical Data Corp. introduced her to the education technology with the videodisc, the mid-1980s forerunner of the CD and DVD.

Schneider was doing more professional development, curriculum design and evaluation of ongoing educational programs.

Schneider moved to Spokane in 1994, thinking she would have little problem finding a job with her background in education technology.

When that did not happen immediately, she went back on the road for Harcourt Brace, again as a consultant.

Also in 1994, Schneider began working for the consortium, which specializes in configuring off-the-shelf software to create new learning tools.

For MAC, Schneider said, the group is building the skeleton that Lewis and the cultural council will flesh out.

Lewis said she began that work years ago with her grandmother, Amy Galbraith, whose stories she began to record because she wanted to capture as much of the Salish language as possible.

Other tribal elders became involved as they tried to share as much of their vocabulary as they could.

The job became more urgent as elders passed away.

"We saw we needed to get more done before it's gone," Lewis said.

To help teach the language to the young, she and tribal elder Robert Sherwood created 22 "books" on Hyperstudio, a program that allowed students to, for example, open a cupboard and learn the Salish names for the contents.

If the Star Nation Lifeways link works properly, she said, MAC visitors will come to regard the items in the museum's extensive collection as more than curiosities.

"They look at them as artifacts," she said. "They are not. They are living things.

"These objects are very much a part of our daily lives."

Accuracy is critical, she said.

The distinctions between the customs of individual tribes have been blurred by the cross-pollination that occurs at powwows and other events, she said. Children in particular do not know the difference.

Lewis recalled her daughter's experience in a Reardan classroom.

Instead of seeking out tribal representatives, she said, the lesson on Native American history was built around a viewing of "The Last of the Mohicans."

"We were less than 20 minutes away," said the chagrined Lewis.

But she added that the tribes bear some responsibility.

"There's not a lot of information out there," Lewis said.

Adds Schneider: "There is no real content out there that is teachable."

She said information on the site will be built as a curriculum for K-12 students, emphasizing the fourth, sixth and ninth grades that study Washington history.

Schneider said she hopes to introduce the site to Inland Northwest teachers before school opens next fall.

Once the structure of the site has been completed, she said, her role will diminish.

"We don't take the tool with us," said Schneider. "It's up to the tribe to see what happens to it."

How fast development progresses will depend on funding. A minor budget dispute has snagged a $450,000 federal appropriation intended to sustain the project, but the funds are expected to be available by the end of the month.

If so, Schneider said, Star Nations Lifeways should be ready March 1.

But years and more money will be needed to sustain the ongoing task of enriching the site with as much lore as possible, perhaps adding more tribes over time.

"It's expensive to create communities, virtual or otherwise," Schneider said.

Lewis said some of the most sacred rites and icons will be reserved for tribal members only.

And some money supports efforts to create a font that will be universal to all Salish-speaking tribes, she said, an achievement that will encourage use of the language in forums like chat rooms.

If she and Schneider are successful, Lewis said, they will create a space on the Internet that her elders and those before them would recognize.

"This is their vision, I'm lucky to be part of it," Lewis said. "They trust me to go forward."

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Canku Ota is a copyright © 2000, 2001, 2002 of Vicki Lockard and Paul Barry.


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