November is Native American Heritage Month. For those who need a little history refresher, in 1990 President George W. Bush approved a resolution designating the month of November as Native American Heritage Month. The leaders of this nation have made such proclamations every year since. However, the fight for recognition did not start then. Since the early 1900’s, Native Americans have been trying to attain a national day of recognition for the contributions of the first peoples of this land. Dr. Arthur C. Parker (Seneca), Reverend Sherman Coolidge (Arapahoe), and Red Fox James (Blackfoot) all played seminal roles in advocating and promoting a day to nationally recognize the first peoples. Native American people in this country differ from other minority groups in that Native tribes have a unique government-to-government relationship with the U.S. government. Tribal nations are recognized as sovereign nations, and the treaties signed in the past still dictate how land, resources, and access to education and healthcare are distributed today.
“Heritage Month is a time to celebrate the rich and diverse cultures, traditions, and histories and to acknowledge the important contributions of Native people. Heritage Month is also an opportune time to educate the general public about tribes, to raise a general awareness about the unique challenges Native people have faced both historically and in the present, and the ways in which tribal citizens have worked to conquer these challenges. “ – National Congress of American Indians
In honor of Native American Heritage Month, the UW SACNAS Chapter would like to recognize all of its Native American members and our community partners, the Seattle Clear Sky Native Youth Council and the Urban American Indian/Alaskan Native Education Alliance. Their dedication to maintaining cultural values and traditional knowledge while becoming leaders and pursuing education is what makes SACNAS the diverse group that it is.
In this blog, I would like to highlight our Chapter’s history with the Seattle Clear Sky Native Youth Council and their ongoing struggle for the preservation of the Indian Heritage School and advocacy for enhanced Native American education in Seattle Public Schools (SPS). Last week, Clear Sky and UAI/ANEA hosted a meeting between the Native community and the Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Jose Banda/Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn. During this ongoing meeting, community members were able to voice to their opinions on the state of Native education in SPS, funding availability, and the impending closure of the Indian Heritage School. It was a major success that they were able to hold the meeting in the cafeteria of the Indian Heritage School, where Clear Sky meets weekly for cultural and tutoring activities. Clear Sky youth gave testimony and community members tried to convey how we as Native people are intrinsically tied to our ‘Place of Power’ at Indian Heritage. There is a long history of Native American values, community, and battles won that binds each person to Indian Heritage.
The Indian Heritage School was founded in 1974 and was Seattle’s only public school dedicated to the educational support of the native learner. The Indian Heritage School blossomed with the support of community members and under the leadership of Principle Bob Eaglestaff. Principle Eaglestaff transformed Indian Heritage from a dark place commonly referred to as “The Last Stop on the way to No Future” to a vibrant community of students with promising futures. Unfortunately, Eaglestaff passed away unexpectedly in 1996, and Indian Heritage never quite recovered from the loss of his leadership and vision for the future. Slowly, enrollments rates dwindled and Indian Heritage was transformed into the Indian Heritage Middle College. Then, earlier this summer, the Seattle Public Schools Board of Directors announced that the Indian Heritage School would be closed and the school buildings demolished. This last decision was effective in removing the core of the remaining program – Native teachers were assigned to different schools, and only the Secretary Donna Dodgen and Principle Cindy Nash remain at Indian Heritage now. Today, Indian Heritage School has no Native focus, no Native instruction, and only a small handful of Native students.
This announcement, with no consultation from Native parents and the community and in addition to the lack of attention and funding to Native education issues, incensed the Native community. Once again, Indian Heritage was being targeted for closure (as had happened in the past) and the voices of the Native community were being ignored and overlooked. In the past couple years, the remnants of the once vibrant Native community at Indian Heritage had begun reviving through the establishment of the Clear Sky Native Youth Council and communal gatherings held at the location. The school serves as a site where students get tutoring, participate in cultural activities, and play basketball. For two consecutive years, Indian Heritage has hosted the Native Youth Conference. This site has also hosted the University of Washington Annual Powwow and Youth Basketball camps. The building walls of the Indian Heritage School are covered with Native American murals. Artist, Andrew Morrison (Apache-Haida), knew he wanted to draw painting portraits of Chief Seattle and Chief Joseph after seeing the bleak building walls during a basketball game. Now the buildings host an array of beautiful murals portraying Native American icons and the lives of Native Americans. If the Indian Heritage School were demolished, it would leave Clear Sky and the Native-focused education program with no home. Once again, as has been witnessed in the long history of interaction with Native tribes, tactics involving the removal of an important land base to disrupt and destabilize the ability of the Native community to organize and form a cohesive group are being implemented.
The UW SACNAS Chapter has had a long-standing partnership with Clear Sky and UAI/ANEA. Since 2009, we have served as tutors and mentors to the youth throughout the school year during the weekly Clear Sky meetings. Our members have formed meaningful relationships with many of the Clear Sky students, and we see our participation as a means to encourage Native American students to pursue higher education and science degrees. In addition, the UW SACNAS Chapter has had the opportunity to present a yearly workshop at the Native Youth Conference. Through our interactions with Clear Sky and UAI/ANEA members, we recognize that the Indian Heritage School is an integral part of the Native American community. The Native American murals on the walls give us the sense that this is a place of coming together. Even though the cafeteria is not heated and sometimes the doors are locked, every week the Native community comes together at the Indian Heritage. They do this because this is their place; this is their school on the land that belonged to their ancestors. Indian Heritage is where their youth are being trained to become strong leaders and to embrace and be proud of their cultural heritage. It is a space of sharing and encouragement, and only through the support of the community will Indian Heritage be saved.
Thank you to artist Andrew Morrison for providing photographs of the Indian Heritage murals.
Sarah Sense-Wilson, Clear Sky parent organizer and UAI/ANEA co-chair, personal correspondence
Katrina Claw is a 5th year Ph.D. student in the Department of Genome Sciences. She is a member of the Navajo tribe and calls Arizona her home. A more detailed profile of Katrina is located in an earlier blog post on Native American Heritage Month.