Traditional Ecological Knowledge
An Outdoor Environmental Learning Classroom for the students of Suquamish Elementary School
By Melinda West
There is a Salish legend passed down by the First Peoples of the Pacific Northwest that explains the origin of the cedar tree and why it has been referred to as: “Long-Life Maker”. For over four-thousand years this slow-growing, shade-and- water-loving evergreen has resided amongst the fir, yew and hemlock trees, in forests along the edges of Puget Sound. The legend explains that the cedar trees were once generous people who looked to the welfare of others in their community and responded to their needs. I’d like to tell you a story that makes me believe the spirit of this legend is alive and flourishing today.
My relationship with Suquamish Elementary school was rekindled in the spring of 2000. This was the public school my own two, now adult sons had attended. For over a decade, I had spent many hours volunteering in each of their classrooms. On this occasion I was invited as a consultant because of my work as a natural fiber weaving specialist. This visit was to hear about an innovative idea for a project that would combine science, social studies and art education. The proposed project would involve converting a barren, fenced-off drainage catchment area on school grounds into a pond and native plant garden.
Pulling into the auxiliary parking lot, I glanced straight ahead at this desolate space, off limits to students, yet taking away up to one third of the play area. These depressions in the landscape surrounded by locked chain-link fences are commonly seen throughout the Kitsap Peninsula, in Washington State, where I’ve resided for over a quarter century. They are required for surface water purification. I tend to look away from these sites and search for alternative focuses which hold some beauty — the chirping sounds of children at play, verdant leaves unfurling, even the bright yellow of dandelion weeds.
Six years later, as I drive into that same parking lot at Suquamish Elementary, my eyes are drawn to cattail leaves dancing over a shimmering pond. I see delicate, green stalks of the Northwest sweetgrass sedge growing in the bog. Both plants have been used for centuries as weaving materials by the First People of this place. There is a boardwalk and gravel trail that follows the perimeter of the pond. A rain shelter built of yellow cedar is reminiscent of the long houses that once stood nearby. A small cedar tool shed, and wooden benches are nestled in between adolescent hazelnut, vine maple, and western red cedar trees. Shrubs, ferns and ground covers mingle below the wild roses, red currants, and willows.
There is a class of third graders using this space when I arrive. Little faces peak out from behind a bird blind woven with grapevines from a local vineyard. Other students are sitting on boulders perched near the pond, glacial remnants generously donated by a local landscape company. At this moment the students are quietly engaged, making observations and entries in their pond journals. They are smelling and touching plants, writing, measuring, and sketching. In a little while, I will be accompanying a class of fourth graders the fifty odd yards away from the building, through the woven arbor gate and under the twig sign that says: “Welcome”.
“In traditional Native American cultures, art was not a separate pursuit. Beauty and utility came together in objects of everyday use to reflect a way of life and an aesthetic that respected the relationship people had with their environment.”…Shaun Peterson, Salish Artist, 2004 SAM exhibit” Song, Story, Speech”.
As a plant fiber artist, teachers invite me to present ethnobotanical knowledge about Pacific Northwest plants to their students. This provides content for social studies and science requirements, while the techniques for using the plant fibers provide physical activity, math and art skills. The Basket Marsh and outdoor classrooms of its kind are living libraries and laboratories. They contain unlimited resources for teaching every subject students need to learn.
What I have to offer as a teaching artist is most effective in an environment where students can see, touch, smell, hear, and sometimes even taste, the subject-matter. Again and again, I have witnessed that this first-hand experiential learning of natural science and culture gives lasting memory and meaning to students. The virtues of the western red cedar can easily be appreciated by children, when they are given pieces of the leather-like inner bark to experiment with as they sit next to young growing cedar trees. Non-conventional learning environments like the Suquamish Basket Marsh give opportunities for students and classroom teachers to meet and interact directly with artists and other specialists from the community.
Today I will model my craft, and students will get to experience weaving with cattails that they have helped to grow and harvest from their Basket Marsh. We will share stories, sing a weaving song, and then weave a mat or make some rope in order to experience first hand the ingenious ways that cattails and other native plants have been used by the First People of this place.
Connecting the Project to the Place
“Every part of this country is sacred to my people. Every hillside, every valley, every plain and grove has been hallowed by some fond memory or sad experience of my tribe.”…..Chief Seattle, speech at the Pt. Elliot Treaty signing, paraphrased by Dr Henry Smith, 1854.
Twelve thousand years ago, a thick layer of ice covered the Pacific Northwest. As the ice melted, glaciers formed and slowly carved out deep channels that the water filled. Forests grew, and the land that was left became covered with plants. In some origin stories, native North American storytellers have told that the First People were once plants and animals who later took human form. Those people began to live in villages along the shorelines, and since then their descendants have been living here too. Long before contact with explorers, trappers, and settlers, the place near the present day town of Suquamish was highly populated. Everything needed to sustain a rich community and cultural life was present in the forests, meadows, rivers, at the water’s edge, and in the sea.
“Children learned from an early age not to pluck too much or ruthlessly destroy the valuables of the earth. They learned responsible, caring behavior both through stories, metaphors and focused instruction at opportune moments and through observation, emulation and experience.”…Nancy Turner, from THE EARTH’S BLANKET, 2005.
Prehistoric survival was dependant upon the knowledge of place accumulated over time: geography, seasons, cycles, weather patterns, plants, and animals. In recent times, this knowledge, reflected in the First Peoples’ relationship with the flora and fauna, is being referred to as Sacred Ecology or Traditional Ecological Knowledge. This body of information has been passed down through the oral tradition from one generation to the next, through stories, songs, ceremonies, and through the practice of traditional technologies, skills, and arts derived from the environment.
In Lushootseed, a language spoken by many of the First People of the Puget Sound area, the word for Suquamish is d’suq’wub which means “place of clear salt water”. The city of Seattle was named in honor of Chief Seattle, the Duwamish and Suquamish leader, who in the mid 1800’s protected his community from the raiding parties of other tribes. Later, in hopes of further protecting his people from the influx of settlers and a new government hungry for land and resources, he signed a treaty with the United States government which resulted in the city of Seattle being built upon traditional Duwamish Tribal land. Chief Seattle’s burial site is only a few blocks away from Suquamish Elementary school. Every August, the Suquamish Tribe sponsors a huge gathering of Intertribal-Nation festivities and canoe races known as Chief Seattle Days, honoring this important leader.
Nearly one quarter of the students at Suquamish Elementary school, are descendants of First Peoples indigenous to North America. After many years of misunderstanding by impinging dominant cultures, the perspectives and approaches to education espoused by some of the traditional First Peoples’ teachings are starting to be better understood and valued. The holistic ways of thinking about the Earth, organizing information, and connecting knowledge to daily life are as important today as ever.
“In our culture all things are living….everything has life.”…Dr. Martina Whelshula, Colville Tribes, Benchmarks Panel, WAEYC Conference, 10-27-06.
Traditional teachings are imbued with lessons for sustainable living and are intrinsically linked to place. Relationships — with people, plants, animals, and all the elements, are emphatically important. Now the Suquamish Basket Marsh is providing opportunities everyday for these types of lessons to touch children of all cultural backgrounds within the school and community. The Lushooteed name for this outdoor classroom is: gelk’ali. It means “place of weaving”.
“Weaving has always been part of the community in the First People’s traditional culture here in this place. Now it is part of the healing for our people. We are stitching and mending the culture back together.”….Darlene Peters,PHD, counselor, teacher, Suquamish and Port Gamble S’Klallam, gelk’ali dedication speech, May 2002.
Planting the Seed
The idea for the gelk’ali came from Ron Hirschi, a fisheries biologist who worked for many years with the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe. He is author of over fifty books for children, many that combine real life pictures of animals with accurate scientific information. While appearing as a guest for the school’s May 2000 Young Authors Day, Mr. Hirschi shared with students, projects from other schools including the restoration of a wetland at Pickerington Elementary in Ohio. He suggested creating a pond out of the storm water retention area at Suquamish Elementary. His idea was that by planting it with native plants traditionally used by the local First People, especially plants used for traditional basket weaving, there would be an opportunity for tribal families to become more involved at the school. Tribal members living in the community could be invited into classrooms to share cultural experiences and knowledge with all the students. Mr. Hirschi also shared how students, at nearby Seabeck Elementary, formed an after school group called the “Salmon Team”. He helped this team partner with parents, the S’Klallam Tribe, and Trust for Public Lands, to acquire an entire estuary after research by the Salmon Team showed the presence of endangered salmon in its waters.
Recognizing a Problem
“As teachers we should be striving to give kids moments of greatness. How can we help students have these moments?”…Jan Jackson, personal interview, 9-13-06
After 18 years of teaching, Jan Jackson, a librarian at Suquamish Elementary school, was considering retirement. She felt she was losing an important connection with her students. Like many classroom teachers today, Ms. Jackson recognized the challenge of engaging students with a broad spectrum of learning styles from various cultural and economic backgrounds. She noticed that many students were spending more and more time in front of video and television screens. She also saw the pressures put upon teachers to spend more time teaching to a system of standardized tests, leaving less time to develop relationships with students for building life and learning skills. At the same time, children were having fewer opportunities to be outside, fewer chances to be observing nature, less time to be exploring and responding to the natural environment through the arts and sciences.
“Direct exposure to nature is essential for healthy childhood development – physical, emotional, and spiritual….it is a potent therapy for depression, obesity, and ADD…it improves standardized test scores…it develops skills in problem solving, critical thinking, decision making…and creativity”… Richard Louv, The Last Child in the Woods, 2005.
When a need is recognized and a community cares, a good idea can be set into motion as long as there is someone like Ms. Jackson to see it through. She first approached Principal Joe Davalos with the concept of the outdoor classroom. “It helps to have a principal that lets people follow their heart,” she says of Davalos. Other teachers became interested, and a committee was formed which met through the summer to plan a Basket Marsh curriculum. Relating the curriculum to career education helped the school apply for funds from their school district’s vocational department to get them started.
Gathering a Team
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. In fact, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Margaret Mead, anthropologist 1901-1978
With the principal, teachers, students, parents, and the Suquamish Tribe on board, it was time to see if there was community support for the Basket Marsh. For the next two years Ms. Jackson spent many hours in outreach, bringing students with her to attend school board and other community meetings. Individuals, families, corporate and business sponsors, all stepped forward to provide funds, services, equipment, materials, and the invaluable hours of labor and expertise required. Approval from the school board, consulting with the water district, permits from the county, all needed to be researched and secured.
The Suquamish Tribe partnered with the school, providing ongoing funding for programs and projects at the gelk’ali. They helped develop the plan for the marsh, provided soil testing, water flow analysis, ground surveys, plant recommendations, and consultations by hydrology and fisheries professionals. The county departments of Waste Water Management and Solid Waste, as well as the local public utility district’s Education Department, have given continual support.
Institutions of higher learning have been important resources for the gelk’ali. Each year, many students from Suquamish Elementary spend four days at IslandWood’s School Overnight Program, receiving an intensive environmental education experience. An ongoing partnership has formed with this nationally acclaimed environmental learning center, and inspiration for many of the class service projects have come from this relationship. Members of IslandWood’s staff and some of their graduate students have helped with improvements at the gelk’ali, and have been involved in follow-up teaching. The National Wildlife Foundation and Cornell University’s department of Ornithology’s “Classroom Feeder Watch Program” have also enhanced environmental education and science curriculum.
As director of the pond project, Ms. Jackson credits the whole community with building the gelk’ali. Students, teachers and staff, PTA, school district personnel, county employees, the Suquamish Tribe, biologists, carpenters, scientists, authors, specialists, garden clubs, the local Rotary, civil engineers, architects, landscapers, artists, area businesses, parents and volunteers — all saw the need and understood the benefits.
Involving the Students
“I want kids to get their hands dirty, and not be afraid to make a mess.” …Jan Jackson 9-15-06
Known as the “Pond kids”, these 4th-6th graders fill out applications at the beginning of each year in hopes of gaining a position on the Student Advisory Board. This extracurricular group of 25-30 students meets weekly with Ms. Jackson and the volunteer docents. The Pond Kids have been involved in all aspects of the development of the gelk’ali, from research, to fund-raising, to planning and coordinating Earth Day assemblies. Early on, the students helped design and plan the pond. After meeting with a parent who showed them how to take topographical measurements of the site, they built a 3-dimensional scale model to help with their presentations to the School Board, sponsors, and to other community groups. They cleared out the blackberries and Scotch broom, and helped rake, dig and plant. Now the Pond Kids continue the ongoing physical labor at the gelk’ali, restoring habitat and maintaining the plants.
“Before the pond was built the grass was brown and now it’s green. I enjoy knowing I’m making a difference in the school.” …Winona, 5th grader, 2002
All the students at Suquamish Elementary utilize the gelk’ali for learning. Each student has a pond journal they use for documenting their observations at the gelk’ali throughout the year. Along with each class, every year a new group of Pond Kids implement one or more service projects that connect the gelk’ali with the whole school. One project inspired after a visit to IslandWood has been recycling lunchroom waste. The Pond Kids researched vermaculture, and agreed upon the size needed for the worm boxes based upon their measurements of daily school lunch food waste. The boxes were built by a parent volunteer. The students made instructional posters, gave presentations to classes, and volunteered to stay in from recess to help collect the food waste. Now the school saves district money since there is less trash. At the same time, the worms decompose all that food waste into useful compost for the plants at the gelk’ali.
As well as learning important aspects of being responsible stewards of the land, the Pond Kids are encouraged to be active citizens and communicators. They have written letters to sponsors, articles for school newsletters, and corresponded with foundations and public officials. In the course of these activities they have won local, regional and national recognition for their environmental leadership. Each week the Pond Kids report back to their classrooms what they are leaning at the gelk’ali. To help build relationships between grade levels they also report weekly to their “buddy classrooms” in the primary grades. Each year all the students at Suquamish Elementary are learning about environmental stewardship first hand.
“The marsh is like a puzzle that fits into the big picture. The plants protect the pond from harm. The trees grow, give shade, and hold together the pond with their strong immense roots. The dirt absorbs nutrients and, sometimes, the pollution. The animals in the pond make it a happier place for us.” …Tyler, 4th grader, 2002
Imagining the Future
“An intimate participation leaves a memory as long as you are on the earth.”…Bruce Miller, the late Skokomish Spiritual Leader and Cultural Teacher, from Teachings of the Tree People, 2005 video produced by Katie Jennings and IslandWood
How can teachers find the support they need to step outside of the metaphoric boundaries of classrooms today? In conjunction with standardized learning and testing, is it within the realm of possibility that community-born projects for learning could be used by more teachers and children, on a daily basis?
Imagine every elementary school in the United States being able to tell a story like this. Not identical, of course, but a story of how their schools, students, parents, and communities could find authentic ways to meet the educational needs of their children. The native plant garden and outdoor classroom is just one possibility for providing an atmosphere for student-driven, inquiry-based learning. At the gelk’ali, as teachers become more comfortable embracing this resource, the natural history of Suquamish can come to life for their students. Differing cultural perspectives can be explored giving all students the opportunity to examine their own cultural roots and traditions. The scientific and artist processes can be taught –honing observation skills, exploring and asking questions, experimenting, designing solutions, researching, making measurements, learning techniques and skills, documenting results, reflecting upon them, and finding new questions!
Throughout the development of the gelk’ali, the school, tribe, and community have proven to be devoted advocates for promoting diverse cultural perspectives and approaches to education. They have diligently created a place of learning that enhances the educational opportunities for students with various learning strengths, and engages them through methods that mainstream classrooms cannot offer.
“Working with the Suquamish Tribe…planting the grasses the indigenous peoples worked with for their basket making, takes teaching to the highest level: Every time we educate our children on the rich diversity that exists in this country, we educate ourselves.” …Jay Inslee, US House of Representatives, Washington State Congressional District # 1, Letter for the Dedication of the Galk’ali 4-02
Outdoor classrooms, such as the Suquamish Basket Marsh, broaden educational opportunities for a diverse group of students. They give non-conventional teaching specialists the opportunity to use their respective art forms as vehicles for teaching science, math, social studies, language, history, and the arts. Concepts difficult to learn from books alone or while sitting inside at desks, become illuminated, when students are given opportunities to relate them to natural living systems on a daily basis.
Many caring individuals have built this special place of learning. Around the pond, the cedar trees are growing taller. As in the ancient legend of the cedar tree, each sword fern, camas bulb, huckleberry and Oregon grape plant – reflect a piece of a story of someone’s generosity. When people care about their children’s education, even a small puddle on the school grounds can become a lesson about the transformative power of a community working together.
History/Stages of Pond Development
Stage I – 2000 – Planning
Stage II – 2001 – Construction
Stage III – 2002 – Maintenance, Improvements, Service Projects
Stage IV – 2003 to Present – Maintenance, Ongoing Service Projects
Suquamish Garden Club
Kitsap County Solid Waste Department
Kitsap County Storm Water Management Department
Public Utilities Education Department
National Wildlife Federation
President’s Environmental Youth Award, 2003
Kitsap County Commissioners’ Earth Day Award, 2002, 2006
Grand Prize, Ivy Sculpture Contest, Bainbridge Gardens, 2004
Suquamish Tribe Appendix X, 2000-present
Lowe’s Toolbox For Education Grant, 2006
Gifts from many assorted local business and individuals
Traditional Native American Tribal Weavers
Natural Fiber Weaver
List of Service Projects by Classes and Pond Kids
Science Fair Projects
Building a copper water gauge for measuring water level at pond related to rainfall
Weaving a branch and vine bird blind
Earth Day Celebration assemblies
Native plant tiles with imprint and scientific, common and Lushootseed names
Native plant studies, drawings over the seasons
Cattail weaving projects
Ivy animal sculptures
Classroom Bird Feeder Watch, Cornell University
Participate in making film, Teachings of the Tree People, sponsored by IslandWood
Recycled material baskets
Contribute drawings for IslandWood field Guide: ALL MY RELATIONS.
Cedar gathering bark with Suquamish Tribal Elder
Cedar basket weaving
Mason Bee house
Bird feeders and houses
Programs with Tribal Elders
Field testing a weaving project for a book by Bruce Miller and Nan McNutt
Participation in a Nature Conservancy Education Video
Bird Observation Garden
For More Information Contact:
Ron Hirschi www.ronhirschi.com
Watch for the new book: We all Live Downstream. These are the words of Holly Cocoili, Environmental Biologist for the S’Klallam Tribe. Her words and the concept inspired a new book by that title written by Ron Hirschi, and including the Suquamish Basket Marsh, Pickerington Pond in Ohio, and Seabeck Salmon Team projects on Hood Canal, WA.
Suquamish Environmental Education Boosters, (501(c)(3) www.seeboosters.org
Jan Jackson, librarian, Gelk’ali Director : firstname.lastname@example.org
Melinda West, fiber artist, article author : email@example.com
IslandWood Environmental Learning Center www.islandwood.org
Much of the credit for this article comes from the inspiration I’ve received from reading the works of Distinguished Professor Nancy J. Turner, author of the recent books: THE EARTH’S BLANKET – TRADITIONAL TEACHINGS FOR SUSTAINABLE LIVING, and KEEP IT LIVING – TRADITIONS OF PLANT USE AND CULTIVATION ON THE NORTHWEST COAST OF NORTH AMERICA; along with Richard Louv’s book: THE LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS – SAVING OUR CHILDREN FROM NATURE-DEFICIT DISORDER.
Melinda West, of Indianola Washington has been practicing the art of natural fiber weaving since 1985. She has studied with many native and non-native weavers and artists, the foremost being Ed Carriere of the Suquamish Tribe. Melinda enjoys sharing her love of natural history, environmental stewardship, and indigenous cultures through the teachings and the practices of traditional fiber arts.