Photo by Jim Martin
Why Environmental Educators Shouldn’t
Give Up Hope
by Jacob Rodenburg
I’m trying hard not to get discouraged. Being an environmental educator in today’s world feels like you are asked to stop a rushing river armed only with a teaspoon.
There are so many issues to be worried about—from climate change to habitat destruction, from oceans of plastic to endangered species, from the loss of biodiversity to melting glaciers. And the list goes on. The field itself has become ever more siloed and compartmentalized over time, leaving schools, parents, and outdoor programs with little unified guidance. How do we teach kids—in a hopeful and empowering way—about today’s formidable challenges? And how do we translate this increase in knowledge about environmental issues into action?
Children today are given few opportunities to be outside. In a school system rife with worry about liability, it is simply easier to stay indoors. Insurance rates are cheaper if kids are contained, accounted for, and “safe” inside.
Yet the safety argument needs to be turned on its head: It is unsafe NOT to take children outside, not to provide them with rich immersion time in the living world. Leaving kids indoors cuts them off from the knowledge and understanding of what it means to be a living being that shares a world with other living beings. Children have a right to experience the joy of discovering the richness, complexity, and diversity of life.
Children’s disconnect from their surroundings and their environment does not stem from a lack of desire. As an outdoor educator, I have spent many happy hours with school children tramping through wetlands, lifting up rotten logs, and canoeing through still waters hearing comments like “Wow! This is cool!” To fulfill children’s need to connect, the field must develop a coordinated and developmentally appropriate approach—one that is rooted in what kids are ready to learn at each age.
Building Age-appropriate Environmental Education
Children learn about the natural world in vastly different ways as they grow up. Environmentalists are keen to teach children about global warming, pollution, species depletion, and a whole range of admittedly important issues, but they forget that younger children aren’t cognitively, perhaps even psychically, ready for this.
Young children are, however, always ready to love the natural world. Connecting with nature is about establishing a relationship and building intimacy. What is the story of the land near where a child lives? How did that oak get that large hole in it? Who lives under this decomposing log? If we think about tending to and nurturing relationships, then we’ll remember to take kids to the same places over and over again. We’ll help them find their magic places, their stories of that place and, more importantly, their place within that place. We will teach them the power and possibility of restoring nature in their school yards, their backyards, and in nearby parks.
Kids connect best to places through stories and faces. A teacher once shared a story with me about a mystery bird that had built a nest in a parking lot. After doing a bit of research, the children found out that this bird was called a killdeer. They watched the bird as she did her broken wing trick (to lead predators away from the nest). Over the days, they watched her scoop out her nest and sit upon it. They cordoned off an area with yellow emergency tape to protect her from cars. They watched her raise her young. This was their killdeer, and they would have done anything to protect her. The students became involved in her unfolding story, and the killdeer suddenly had a face. In a way, she revealed herself to them.
Another teaching tip: young children love micro environments. A friend of mine told me about a time when he took his children, 4 and 5 years old, up to an incredible view of a valley. He asked, “Isn’t this beautiful?” and watched in amazement as his kids hunkered down and stared at the ants scurrying at their feet instead.
Finally, young children adore discovery. It is the art of an educator to know what to say and what to refrain from saying. If I had a job description, it would be simply this: to help reveal wonder and cultivate awe. I take my students to a place called Salamander Alley and say, “I wonder what’s under that log?” If they find a salamander, there is a palpable feeling of joy in the discovery. Had I said, “Let’s go find some salamanders. They’re probably under this log,” the effect would have been completely different. When a child finds something, I let them own that discovery. I honor and celebrate it. The power of this kind of learning can never be undervalued.
Neil Everenden writes that we do not end at our finger tips. Instead, we radiate out into the landscape. We are inextricably bound up in the processes of life. With every breath in and out we are part of the natural systems that surround us. Our role today is to guide our children, in ways that resonate with their interests and development, to realize this connection.
Where to Go From Here
We can create nature-rich communities where kids feel a deep and abiding love for the living systems that we all are immersed in. Eventually, children will learn even to go beyond sustaining and to engage in acts of regeneration. That is where true hope resides.
Here’s hoping we can all coordinate our efforts throughout every age and stage of a child’s development. We need to work collaboratively with schools, parents, community groups, faith groups, governments, and non-governmental agencies to help future generations love, learn about, care for, protect, and enhance the environment. Indeed the future of the planet depends upon it.
Jacob Rodenburg is Executive Director of Camp Kawartha and The Camp Kawartha Outdoor Education Centre, located in Ontario, Canada. He is a contributing author in the Worldwatch Institute’s EarthEd: Rethinking Education on a Changing Planet.
Educating as if Survival Matters
Nancy M Trautmann Michael P Gilmore
BioScience, Volume 68, Issue 5, 1 May 2018, Pages 324–326, https://doi.org/10.1093/biosci/biy026
22 March 2018
ver the past 40 years, environmental educators throughout the world have been aiming to motivate and empower students to work toward a sustainable future, but we are far from having achieved this goal. Urgency is evident in the warning issued by more than 15,000 scientists from 184 countries: “to prevent widespread misery and catastrophic biodiversity loss, humanity must practice a more environmentally sustainable alternative to business as usual… Soon it will be too late to shift course away from our failing trajectory, and time is running out. We must recognize, in our day-to-day lives and in our governing institutions, that Earth with all its life is our only home” (Ripple et al. 2017).
In this tumultuous era of ecocatastrophes, we need every child to grow up caring deeply about how to live sustainably on our planet. We need some to become leaders and all to become environmentally minded citizens and informed voters. Going beyond buying greener products and aiming for energy efficiency, we must find ways to balance human well-being, economic prosperity, and environmental quality. These three overlapping goals form the “triple bottom line,” aiming to protect the natural environment while ensuring economic vitality and the health of human communities. This is the basis for sustainable development, defined by the United Nations as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (WCED 1987). Strong economies of course are vital, but they cannot endure at the expense of vibrant human societies and a healthy environment.
Within the formal K–12 setting, a primary hurdle in teaching for sustainability is the need to meaningfully address environmental issues within the constraints of established courses and curricular mandates. In the United States, for example, the Next Generation Science Standards designate science learning outcomes for grades K–12 (NGSS 2013). These standards misrepresent sustainability challenges by portraying them as affecting all humans equally, overlooking the substantial environmental justice issues evident within the United States and throughout the world. Another oversight is that these standards portray environmental issues as solvable through the application of science and technology, neglecting the potential roles of other sources of knowledge (Feinstein and Kirchgasler 2015).
One might argue that K–12 students are too young to tackle looming environmental issues. However, they are proving up to the challenge, such as through project-based learning in which they explore issues and pose potential solutions. This may involve designing and conducting scientific investigations, with the possibility of participating in citizen science. Case-study research into teen involvement in community-based citizen science both in and out of school settings revealed that the participants developed various degrees of environmental science agency. Reaching beyond understanding of environmental science and inquiry practices, this term’s definition also includes confidence in one’s ability to take positive stewardship actions (Ballard et al. 2017). The study concluded that the development of environmental science agency depended on involving teens in projects that included these three factors: investigating complex social–ecological systems with human dimensions, ensuring rigorous data collection, and disseminating scientific findings to authentic external audiences. Educators interested in undertaking such endeavors can make use of free resources, including an ever-growing compendium of lesson plans for use with citizen-science projects (SciStarter 2018) and a downloadable curriculum that leads students through the processes of designing and conducting their own investigations, especially those inspired by outdoor observations and participation in citizen science (Fee 2015).
We need to provide opportunities for students to investigate environmental issues, collect and analyze data, and understand the role of science in making informed decisions. But sustainability challenges will not be resolved through scientific approaches alone. Students also need opportunities to connect deeply with people from drastically different cultures and think deeply about their own lifestyles, goals, and assumptions. As faculty members of the Educator Academy in the Amazon Rainforest, we have had the privilege of accompanying groups of US teachers through 10-day expeditions in the Peruvian Amazon. Last summer, we asked Sebastián Ríos Ochoa, leader of a small indigenous group living deep in the rainforest, for his view of sustainability. Sebastián responded that he and his community are one with the forest—it is their mother, providing life and wholeness. Reflecting on the changes occurring at an accelerating rate even in remote rainforest communities, Sebastián went on to state that his greatest wish is for his descendants to forever have the opportunity to continue living at one with their natural surroundings (Sebastián Ríos Ochoa, Maijuna Community Leader, Sucusari, Peru, personal communication, 18 July 2017). After decades of struggle during which their rainforest resources were devastated by outside loggers and hunters (Gilmore 2010), this indigenous group has regained control over their ancestral lands and the power to enact community-based conservation practices. Their efforts provide compelling examples of how people (no matter how few in number and how marginalized) can effect positive change.
In collaboration with leaders of Sebastián’s remote Peruvian community and a nongovernmental organization with a long history of working in the area, US educators are creating educational resources designed to instill this same sense of responsibility in children growing up without such direct connections to nature. Rather than developing a sense of entitlement to ecologically unsustainable ways of life, we need children to build close relationships with the natural world, empathy for people with different ways of life, and a sense of responsibility to build a better tomorrow. Although the Amazon rainforest is a common topic in K–12 and undergraduate curricula, typically it is addressed through textbook readings. Instead, we are working to engage students in grappling with complex real-world issues related to resource use, human rights, and conservation needs. This is accomplished through exploration of questions such as the following: (a) How do indigenous cultures view, interact with, and perceive their role in the natural world, and what can we learn from them? (b) How do our lives influence the sustainability of the rainforest and the livelihoods of the people who live there? (c) Why is the Amazon important to us, no matter where we live? (d) How does this relate to the triple-bottom-line goal of balancing social well-being, economic prosperity, and environmental protection?
Investigating the Amazon’s impacts on global weather patterns, water cycling, carbon sequestration, and biodiversity leads students to see that the triple bottom line transcends cultures and speaks to our global need for a sustainable future for humans and the environment throughout the world. Tracing the origin of popular products such as cocoa and palm oil, they investigate ways to participate in conservation initiatives aiming for ecological sustainability both at home and in the Amazon.
Another way to address global issues is to have students calculate the ecological footprint attributable to their lifestyles, leading into consideration of humankind vastly overshooting Earth’s ability to regenerate the resources and services on which our lives depend. In 2017, August 2 was determined to be the date on which humanity had overshot Earth’s regenerative capacity for the year because of unsustainable levels of fishing, deforestation, and carbon dioxide emissions (Earth Overshoot Day 2017). The fact that this occurs earlier each year is a stark reminder of our ever-diminishing ability to sustain current lifestyles. And as is continually illustrated in news of climate disasters, human societies with small ecological footprints can be tragically vulnerable to such calamities (e.g., Kristof 2018).
Engaged in such activities, students in affluent settings may end up deriving solutions that shake the very tenet of the neoliberal capitalistic societies in which they live. To what extent should students be encouraged to challenge the injustices and entitlements on which world economies currently are based, such as by seeking ways to transform the incentive structures under which business and government decisions currently are made? Should they be asked to envision ways of overturning the unsustainable ways in which modern societies deplete resources, emit carbon dioxide, and destroy the habitats needed to support diverse forms of life on Earth?
Anyone who gives serious consideration to the environmental degradation and social-injustice issues in today’s world faces the risk of sinking into depression at the thought of a hopeless future. What can we possibly accomplish that will not simply be too little, too late? Reflecting on this inherent tension, Jon Foley (2016) stated, “If you’re awake and alive in the twenty-first century, with even an ounce of empathy, your heart and mind are going to be torn asunder. I’m sorry about that, but it’s unavoidable — unless you simply shut down and turn your back on the world. For me, the only solution is found in the space between awe and anguish, and between joy and despair. There, in the tension between two worlds, lies the place we just might find ourselves and our life’s work.”
Education for sustainability must build on this creative tension, capturing students’ attention while inspiring them to become forces for positive change.
Collaboration with the Maijuna is made possible through work of the OnePlanet nonprofit organization (https://www.oneplanet-ngo.org) and Amazon Rainforest Workshops (http://amazonworkshops.com).
Nancy Trautmann was supported through a fellowship with the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society in Munich, Germany, to develop curricular resources that highlight the Maijuna to inspire U.S. youth to care about conservation issues at home and abroad.
Ballard HL, Dixon CGH, Harris EM. 2017.
Youth-focused citizen science: Examining the role of environmental science learning and agency for conservation. Biological Conservation 208: 65–75.
Earth Overshoot Day. 2017. Earth Overshoot Day 2017 fell on August 2. Earth Overshoot Day. (1 December 2017; www.overshootday.org)
FeeJM. 2015. BirdSleuth: Investigating Evidence. Cornell Lab of Ornithology . (15 January 2018; http://www.birdsleuth.org/investigation/)
FeinsteinNW, KirchgaslerKL. 2015.
Sustainability in science education? How the Next Generation Science Standards approach sustainability, and why it matters. Science Education 99: 121–144.
Foley J.2016. The space between two worlds. Macroscope . (28 October 2016; https://themacroscope.org/the-space-between-two-worlds-bc75ecc8af57)
Gilmore MP. 2010. The Maijuna: Past, present, and future . 226–233 in Gilmore MP, Vriesendorp C,Alverson WS, del CampoÁ, von MayR, WongCL, OchoaSR, eds. Perú: Maijuna. The Field Museum.
KristofN.2018. Swallowed by the sea. New York Times. (23 January 2018 ; www.nytimes.com/2018/01/19/opinion/sunday/climate-change-bangladesh.html)
[NGSS] Next Generation Science Standards. 2013. Next Generation Science Standards: For States, By States. NGSS. (10 October 2017; www.nextgenscience.org)
Ripple WJ et al. 2017. World scientists’ warning to humanity: A second notice. BioScience
SciStarter. 2018. SciStarter for Educators. SciStarter . (12 February 2018; https://scistarter.com/educators)
[WCED] World Commission on Environment and Development. 1987. Our Common Future . Oxford University Press.
© The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Institute of Biological Sciences.
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Native Voices: Reclaiming a Culture through the Traditional Canoe
Nathan Piengkham is a member of the Kalispel Tribe and the Executive Director of The River Warrior Society. Members of the fourth-grade crew interviewed him about his involvement in the resurgence of the traditional canoe. This is the interview transcript.
Can you tell us your name, where you are from, and a little bit about yourself?
My full name is Nathan Samsavath (pronounced Sahm-suh-vat) Piengkham (Pronounced Pink’em). I am from the Kalispell Reservation in Washington State. I was born on the coast near Seattle, in Redmond Washington.
I went to Cusick School, which is a tiny school. There were about 20 kids in my class. I played soccer and baseball. I also did martial arts a lot when I was a kid. My dad is not Native American. My mom is half Native American and half European. My dad is from Laos, near Thailand. So I am half Lao. One of the things Laos is known for is kickboxing and my dad taught me that when I was younger. My uncles taught me Kung Fu and Karate when I was younger. My Uncle Dave was a national Judo champion when he was younger.
I grew up in the mountains so my cousins and I were out in the forest a lot when we were younger. It was really fun. I got see frogs, bugs and turtles.
Many tribes throughout the region have not made a canoe in many years and they are starting to build canoes again. Why and can you tell us what is happening now?
Well, that is kind of a long story. I didn’t know anything about canoes. I actually bought a 12-foot long fiberglass canoe from the store. I never got to paddle it because my uncle had finished building that dugout canoe. So I didn’t even know a lot about the stuff that was going on. A lot of the dams were put in so we didn’t really have a use for our canoes anymore, so no one ever built canoes. We were told not to speak our language, so no one really spoke our language either. We only just started to get a lot of that stuff back. So we are starting to learn our language again. If I were to greet you guys I would say Hest Shulook (xest schulux) or Hest Salhalt (Xest Sxlxalt). That means good day. Then I would say Nathan Piengkham or thlue ease quest (ᴌu i skwest), which means “Nathan Piengkham I am called” if you translate it directly. We just started learning our language so it’s hard to get it all back. It is strange growing up without knowing my language. I knew some of my language growing up, but not a lot of it. So it is cool now to see everybody learning the language. We have a school about the size of your school (Palouse Prairie Charter School, about 180 kids) and the kids learn it from a really young age, so they know it better than I do. So what happened is that one of the tribes on the coast gave the tribes in my area giant cedar logs, maybe 3,000 – 4,000 pound logs. Those logs were sitting there for about two years and no one was doing anything with them. They sit that long because they were actually drying out. When the plants are first cut down, they are still wet, so it takes about two years for logs to dry out. After those two years my uncle and my brother, and a few other people started carving a log. And in 2016 all of the tribes decided that we would paddle together. There were two people named Dan Nanamken and BenAlex Dupri who organized some paddles, but they did not get all of the canoes together. Later they both told me that I was the one who has to take over to organize all of the canoes and the canoe journeys. And I said, “Okay!” And that’s how I am involved in all of this.
When you were a kid, what types of canoes did the tribes that you were most exposed to build and use for transportation?
When I was a kid we didn’t have canoes at all. The canoes that they had before I was young, people aren’t sure about. People thought we had sturgeon nose canoes made out of birchbark, and people thought that was all we had. But we did our own research and we found out that we had birchbark canoes, white pine bark canoes, and another canoe called the tamarack bark canoe. I just found out that we used to have these canoes too. And those are the different bark canoes, but we also had dugout canoes, which is the kind that you guys might have seen us bring out to the Snake River. It’s the kind that starts with a giant log and you carve it out. There are also different types of dugout canoes. There are all different shapes and sizes. We used to have all of those types of canoes.
What happened to the canoes that your ancestors made?
When our ancestors made canoes, it was their canoe. So when they died, they buried them with it. That is why no one every sees canoes anymore is because we would sink them out in the lakes or rivers and they would get buried. There is one dugout canoe in the very bottom of Pend Oreille Lake. It could be part of a burial, so that is why we don’t bother it. So we can’t really see what it looks like.
Why did your tribe stop building canoes?
We stopped building canoes for a long time because people didn’t like to be Native American when I was younger. I am Kalispel, but people didn’t like to be Kalispel. They were ashamed of it because we were really poor. We were put on a reservation where farming wasn’t good, so people couldn’t make any money. So no one wanted to be us because we didn’t have any money and we didn’t have a good place to live. So people didn’t like us to speak our language. Our own parents and grandparents didn’t like us to speak our language. They didn’t like us to do things that our people used to do. Many people were focused on drugs and alcohol and getting into trouble because, out in the mountains there’s not a lot of stuff to do. Normally we would be making canoes because canoes and canoeing out on the water or fishing or picking strawberries and huckleberries was what we always did. We would be doing a lot of fun stuff, but we didn’t have all of that anymore, so people just turned to doing things that they didn’t understand very well, like drugs and alcohol, which is sad.
When was the last canoe made by your tribe?
We don’t know actually. That is not in our history. Right now we have two canoes. One dugout canoe and one white pine bark canoe. And those are the only ones that the Kalispell tribe has that anyone knows about. We used to have more, but nobody knows about them. The thing is we didn’t have a lot of written history, so there are people alive right now who might remember that last canoe, but they can’t remember it unless they are out there canoeing with us. If they are stuck at home, they won’t be able to remember. So maybe hopefully when you guys get to go paddle out on this canoe maybe we can bring some older people and they might remember stuff like that.
Did transport become difficult when you stopped building canoes?
Transport did get a little bit harder. Instead of canoeing down to our family members, we would walk. It wasn’t that big of a deal since we have a tiny reservation and people were starting to buy cars for transportation. Like I said, our tribe was really poor, so all the families would all use one car. They would all pack into one car and drive up and down the reservation Our reservation is not very big. The Kalispell tribe is a small tribe, about 500 of us total. About 150 live on the coast, 150 live in Spokane, and about 150 of us live on the reservation. So there are only about 100 of us who know anything about our history and our ancestors. There are not very many of us left. In 1950 there were less than 150 of us left total. There are not many Kalispels alive anymore, at least that’s what we were always told.
What is the importance of the traditional canoe for you and your tribe?
It’s about learning our history and learning what we should be doing. Instead of turning to drugs and alcohol or other boring stuff, or instead of leaving the tribe and going somewhere else, now people can stay home and work with the canoes. Or they can learn our Salish Language of the Kalispell Tribe, or they can learn how to get the natural foods from our mountains. With the canoes we would fish all the time for fish that were in our area. And we would eat plants that were along the edge of the river, like garlic, onions, or chives. There is a lot of good food on the river. We used to eat oysters or mussels. We would trade with other tribes to get salmon or other types of plants, like water potatoes. A lot of the kids go out in October to get water potatoes, and some of us will take out canoes to get them because water potatoes are in shallow water. But the water is cold so you have to be really tough.
Why after so long did you decide to bring the traditional canoe back?
I didn’t decide, but others were Dan Nanamkin was the first one that was trying to bring it back. He started the River Warrior Facebook page and that’s how everyone originally communicated about canoes. Then BenAlex Dupri, he is a videographer and he makes documentaries. When we left Standing Rock, North Dakota and visited with the tribe up there, he stayed there because of the pipeline protest, which became very well-known throughout the world. Ben Alex made it his mission to stay there and make a documentary there, which just came out not too long ago. Our canoes are in that film for sure. Our canoe families went out there and helped a lot to make sure that the people were taken care of. When he left for Standing Rock, I was left as the only one to take care of the canoe families. I see it bringing a lot of our community together. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) originally for the Kalispell Tribe, the BIA office was on the Nez Perce Reservation. Even though our office was far away from us, it worked really well and we didn’t have any issues. The problem was that when they switched our office to the Spokane agency, suddenly we didn’t get any services anymore and we couldn’t contact the BIA anymore. We don’t know why, but we needed to have a relationship with the Nez Perce Tribe that was far away. Now because of the canoes, we are talking to the Nez Perce Tribe again and visiting people down here in Moscow. The canoes are bringing our communities together. So that is why I chose to stick with the canoe stuff. It is really important for all of our people, our family and our friends.
Was it hard to bring the canoe back, and why or why not?
Yes, it was very difficult to bring the canoes back. Like I mentioned, there were a couple of people trying to help me, but they ended up doing other things and they kind of left me with it. For two years we paddled without any formal support. A lot of people have a school or cultural or language program to help them organize, but at the time I was still in my late 20s and I was really new to organizing and being a leader. I used to be a tutor and I would help people graduate from high school. I would help some of my family members graduate. I also took kids out for activities, like to play basketball, go skateboarding, or go swimming. One time I took a bunch of kids to Yellowstone National Park and we went swimming, but there was a big sign that said “Beware, Vicious Otters May Attack.” And I was like, “What?” There were no vicious otters, but there were leeches, and that was creepy. There were a lot of buffalo wandering around the streets. So it was difficult, but I had a lot of training to learn how to organize people. I went to college for Tribal Administration and Tribal Government. I double majored in Psychology and Philosophy. I took a lot of business, accounting and math classes, but my focus was always psychology and philosophy.
It has been difficult to bring back the canoe. We are still organizing our canoe family. I just started a nonprofit, the River Warrior Society, to help us so that we have an organization to facilitate everything that we’re doing. Some people might think that “Warrior” is aggressive for a name, but “Warrior” could mean a lot of different thing. It’s people who are fighting for a cause, not fighting people. It’s people who are fighting for people’s rights. Your teacher could be an Education Warrior because they are fighting every day to make sure that you get the best education you can get. So as River Warrior, we are fighting to maintain our culture. We are fighting to keep it. And so that we can educate our future generations so everyone can learn about the canoes, not just certain people. If you think about it, it doesn’t matter where your ancestors were from. Wherever they lived in the world, they all lived by a lake or a river or an ocean and they probably had a canoe. So learning this canoe stuff is learning all of our history.
Did the tradition and steps of how to build a canoe fade from your mind as so many years have gone by?
No, the thoughts and processes don’t fade because every time we look at the canoes, we remember what happened. Like my uncle chipped a piece out of the canoe, and every time I see that chip I remember him carving that out too hard and too big. So every time I see it, I remember the techniques and procedures of building the canoe. Every time we go out to paddle, we remember another piece.
Do you build new paddles every time you build a canoe?
We usually try to because the pieces you shave off of the canoe, you can use to make paddles. I have a paddle that is made from the same wood of my canoe. So they are both connected in that way. The cedar log we had was over 800 years old, so that paddle that I have is over 800 years old.
What is the importance of carving paddles?
There is a lot of thought that gets put into making a paddle. Every time you make a carve into it, you remember that. So having your own paddle means that every time you look at it and every time you paddle you remember how to carve. So it is like a teacher. That is one important reason, but also our ancestors did that same thing a long time ago, so at the same time you are learning how to carve a paddle, you are also learning your history. And people make paddles out of different types of wood, and every type of wood you carve differently. If the paddle is super light, you’d have to make it thicker so it doesn’t break. If the wood is super heavy, you can make the paddle really thin because it is really strong so it is not going to break. There is a lot of knowledge about making paddles. What the tribes on the coast would do is that they would make everyone on their team make a paddle, and then they would sell them to raise money to go on a paddle trip. That was how they would raise their money to go on paddles.
To learn more about Nathan and the River Warrior Society, visit https://riverwarriorsociety.org.
Native Voices: Reclaiming a Culture through the Traditional Canoe
Gary Dorr is a member of the Nez Perce Tribe and Chairman of The River Warrior Society. Members of the fourth-grade crew interviewed him about his involvement in the resurgence of the traditional canoe. This is the interview transcript.
What is your full name and where are you from?
My English name is Gary Dorr. My real name is Standing Red Bear. I live in Craigmont, Idaho on the Nez Perce Indian Reservation.
Many Tribes throughout the region have not made a canoe in many years and they are starting to build canoes again. Why is this happening now?
The reason why we are building canoes again, or why we are going back to it, is to reclaim part of our culture. It comes at a time when the culture and the environment are under attack from global warming threats, from pollution. So it makes sense for us to reclaim our authority over the water. And the best way to do that is in the traditional way because our treaties are traditional, traditional words for our ancestors. So we are going back to those words in a good way, the way we would have done it back then with a traditional canoe. Whether it is Kootenai, Coeur d’Alene, Shoshone-Bannock, Paiute, Standing Rock, Rose Bud, or all the coastal tribes, including the Nez Perce, we are all reasserting our authority on the water in a traditional way. So that is why it is coming back.
What types of canoes has your tribe built in the past and what were they used for?
In the past we have done dugout canoes and sometimes we used to burn them out instead of carve them out. I like to tell people that they were our grocery cart, our family car, our post office, and our hunting rigs. We would take them on the river and we would go across the river. Sometimes we’d go just right across the river to go to the other side to gather roots. Sometimes we would take them fishing, even at night time using lanterns with fire, and we would spear fish from it. The other thing we would do is to take them out to lay nets in the water. And we would go all the way to the ocean to gather different shells, to get to where the other fisherman are, and to meet with our other relatives on the coast. We would bring messages back, so that is why the canoe was our post office. And our grocery cart because we would go over and get berries or other roots. It was our hunting rig because before we had trucks we would go hunting in the canoes and gather things.
What happened to the canoes your ancestors made?
Well a lot of different theories on that. Some people say that some people burned them and others say that they buried them in the mud because when the missionaries came here they wanted to get rid of all that culture. So to save it we either burned it ourselves or we buried it in the mud and lakes. We do have four canoes that were made by some Nez Perce elders back in 1913, or somewhere around there. They are in our museum, not on display, but in a separate warehouse. So those are the oldest canoes and the models that we are working off of to make our canoes today.
Do you know why your tribe stopped building canoes?
Again, there are a couple of different theories about why we stopped building canoes and that was probably the missionary influence because when they made the Indian Reservations they wanted us to become farmers. And we used to go from Oregon all the way to Montana, and to Washington, all over the place. We would go with the seasons to different camps. We didn’t stay in on place like a farm house to farm. So in order to keep us doing that they took our horses, they burned down our wickiups and our tipis, and took our boats. They made those things bad to use so we would stay in one spot and become farmers.
Why after so long did you decide to bring the traditional canoe back?
Well we have been trying to bring our language back for years and years and years, and there are quite a few people who are taking our language classes. The other part of that is actually using the language. When we go to ceremonies we use the language. When we go root digging some of the women have songs that they sing when they are digging the roots. So this is just another way for us to expand our culture. A new use for our language is to build this canoe. And we wanted our children to experience this again because people have tried it in the past. I guess abut 1990 someone tried, but they didn’t finish the canoe. So we are going further than they have. It is mainly for our children, so that they can regain that skill.
What is the importance of the traditional canoe for you and your tribe?
It is a symbol. It is a symbol of living with the land. There is nothing man made in the dugout canoe. The paddles are from trees. The canoe is from trees. There is no plastic, no glass, none of that. It takes people to build that. So the importance is gaining our culture and passing it on to our children, also because the children helping us build our canoe have never been in a dugout canoe. So they are going to be the first Nez Perce children in over 113 years to sit in a dugout canoe. It is a big part of our culture because we are surrounded by rivers – the Clearwater, The Salmon, The Snake, The Columbia, The Palouse, all these different rivers and yet we don’t have any canoes left. We want our children to have that back. This is basically our gift to our children and that is why it is important to us.
Is it hard to bring back the canoe, and if so, why?
It is a little bit hard because we don’t have all day to do it. We meet once a week for about three hours so it has taken us a long time. Part of having that canoe sitting exposed for so long is that it’s curing. And as it curing, it is drying out, and it is starting to crack. Because we haven’t sealed it up, because we haven’t finished carving it. So I went through and I sealed what was left on the outside and that helped to stop the cracking. We put some butterfly braces in there along the cracks to keep it from separating more. It is hard with everybody’s work schedule. We are dealing with a traditional craft that was built in three or four days and we are only there for a couple of hours a week, so it has taken us almost a year to get this done. And that is because we are taking a traditional craft and we are combining it with today’s modern work environment and work schedule.
Why did you name your canoe New Medicine?
It is named New Medicine because to us we’ve lost this way. Let me explain what medicine is. Medicine can be words. Medicine can be actual roots, plants, or food. Water is medicine. Prayers are medicine. Giving someone a hug is medicine. You have a good effect and a bad effect and medicine is that effect. So when we built this canoe it is a new medicine to us because none of us have built a canoe in 113 years. To us it is new, but it is actually an old medicine that we are bringing forward. It has always been there for thousands of years, but for us, for me, it is new. So that is why we called it New Medicine.
What is the importance in your tribe to have kids help make canoes or paddles?
It is very important because we are making mistakes on our canoe, but our children are there so next time we are going to teach them a better way of making a canoe. What has happened is we have families now that are coming to the canoe. We have two families that are coming there with their children. My dream is for those people to get a tree in their yard and start building their own family canoe. When they do that, for the children it just becomes natural. Just like every day you brush your teeth, it is a natural thing when you get up in the morning. For children when they want to go camping and go up in the mountains. If they want to come back the easy way, they will find a tree, chop it down and make a canoe. That is how simple the knowledge should be.
How special is it that the kids are helping you?
I think it is really special because children are more pure than we are. When you are born, you are the most pure you are ever going to be. When you are older, you are exposed to things, you have anger, jealousy and all these things that can come the older you get. When you are young, you don’t have all of that. You are just happy. So that brings a good energy to the site where we are building the canoe. They have prayed with the canoe, so I think that is the most important thing. This canoe is a ceremony. Even before we started building it we went into our sweat lodge and prayed for their canoe to come to us. On that day we started the ceremony, and our children are part of that ceremony.
Did the tradition of building a canoe, and the knowledge of how to build it, fade from your mind as the years passed that you didn’t build the traditional canoe?
Yeah it did. For example, when we were here in 1805, when Lewis and Clark first got here. When we sent them down the river, in ten days we built five canoes for them. Ten days. So that’s two days per canoe. That is just as natural as getting up and brushing your teeth. But for us it has taken a year to build. We are getting better at it, but it is something we have to learn. You are not going to learn it until you actually do it. That is why we started to do it, because there is no other way to learn it. You can read it in a book, but until you swing and axe and start carving, until the wood starts to split, you don’t know how to handle that. That is why we are doing it.
What is the importance of carving paddles?
The importance of carving paddles as it was explained to me is that because we worked on these canoes very quickly in three or four days there was a lot of carving going on. So to keep the children from getting hurt while we were swinging axes, we let them carve the paddles. That gave them the hand skills to use a knife, carving tools, whatever we used to carve the canoe to carve the paddle. It kept the children busy while we were doing the heavy work with the log.
What do paddles mean to you in your tribe?
The paddles for us mean the children’s independence. Once we had these small canoes, the children wouldn’t be able to do it unless they had paddles. In order to use the canoe you had to have your own paddles. That makes you independent. And it was the same thing for the people. Sometimes the women had smaller canoes to go across the river. If there canoes were small enough they could use their hands, but if not, they had to have a paddle. So you can have the nicest canoe in the world, but if you don’t have a paddle you aren’t going to be able to go anywhere. So it was about independence.
Historically how long did it take to make a paddle?
Well usually we could make a paddle in maybe a day. For us, the Nimi´ipuu, the Nez Perce, our canoes and our paddles were not fancy. They didn’t look like a piece of art. They were clunky. As long as they worked that was all we cared about. We didn’t put drawings on them. Today we do just because it’s something special for us. But in the past, way back in the day, we built canoes in two days.
What are the steps to making a paddle in your tribe?
First you have to draw it out. The thing with paddles is that normally the children built them because we did a lot of heavy work with the logs. So to keep the children safe while we were working on the canoe the children would be the ones working on the paddles. So we’d trace it out and just let them carve away with knives or sharp points.
With your tribe, traditionally what kinds of shapes and uses did your paddles have?
Normally the first person in the canoe has a pointed paddle that is maybe a little bit skinnier. The reason is that when we pull into shore the first person digs that addle into the dirt, into the shore, and holds the canoe while everyone else gets out. So everyone else should have a rounded paddle. The person in the very back is the one steering the canoe. They might have a little bit longer and thicker paddle because they are pushing and pulling and directing that canoe on a straight line.
Why do you make paddles?
I actually haven’t made a paddle yet. I had someone give me a paddle so I didn’t have to build mine. The reason why we make paddles is when you’re in a canoe, it’s really neat, and you will see this once you are in your canoe, you lay your paddles across the canoe and you can go like a drum beat and sing songs. When you are all going at the same time, that expresses unity. Thump, thump, thump, thump, thump, thump. You can all start on different beats, but if you do it long enough you will find that everybody gets the same beat. It’s a natural thing and we know that. That’s why we do it, to get everybody right in the same mind and get everybody unfied.
Do you build new paddles every time you build a canoe?
I don’t know about every time because this is our first canoe that we have built. We are building a bunch of paddles though. Generally, if you carve your own paddle that goes home with you. We always place the paddle part in the water, but when we lean it up against the wall, we always place that end up and the handle is what touches the floor. And that is just one thing we have learned from our elders. We might have to build paddles again because some of them might break. I think that some people have built their paddle a little bit too thin and when we get on the shore the first paddle on the front of the canoe is always pointed. And the reason for that is when we pull into shore that person digs that paddle into the sand and the dirt and holds the canoe. So that paddle probably will break, because we are down there on the river with e bunch of rocks. So we build them whenever we need them.
Is there anything else that you want us to know about paddles?
The only other thing I want you to know about paddles is to make sure that you guys practice with them on the land first, so that you are all stroking with them at the same time. Because you’re not all on the right side, you’re not all on the left side. So one person will be on the right side, the next person up on the left side, the next person up on the right side, the next person up on the left side. So when you stand in two lines what happens is that the first person in the front of the canoe, when they raise their paddle, everybody on that side behind them raises their paddle, and that way they stroke at the same time. So the person in the front is the one who controls the speed at which you guys are paddling. If you are on the left side you watch the person in front of you, and that person watches the person in front of them, all the way to the front of the canoe. So the person in the front, as soon as they start stroking, everybody on the left side should be stroking at the same time. Same thing on the right side. You watch the person in front of you, they watch the person in front of them, and so on all the way to the front. So you are not clunking paddles, and you’re all going at the same time. That is something you can practice today. Even though your paddles aren’t done, you can practice getting up in two lines, one on the right side and one on the left side, and watch the person in front of you, all the way to the front. That’s so you have more power and so you’re not clunking paddles or mashing anyone’s fingers.
Is there anything about paddles and your tribe specifically that you want the world to know?
We started making our dugout 13 months ago. We started in a ceremony in a sweat lodge and we prayed for this to come in a good way and for everybody to be safe. Building the canoe is part of our ceremony, so our ceremony has been going for 13 months now. When we put the canoe and paddles into the water, it is also a ceremony because we want the Snake River dams to be breached. We have some goals to get those dams out. So we are taking these canoes as a form of prayer. For the paddlers, every stroke, every time they put their paddle in, they are making a prayer. So we say “every pull a prayer.” We are going to break that down. We are going to protect the water. We are going to restore the salmon. Please help us. So that’s probably the difference between just going out recreational boating and a traditional canoe that we’re doing.
To learn more about Gary and the River Warrior Society, visit https://riverwarriorsociety.org.
Outdoor Education —
Thoughts From an Elder
by Dan Kriesberg
Photo courtesy of Portland Audubon Society.
uring college I was a waterfront director at a sleepaway camp and absolutely loved it. When my post college job search led me to residential outdoor education centers I was thrilled. It was summer camp all year round and it allowed me to follow my lifelong passion for the natural world. The perfect job. Twenty-five years later, after being a naturalist, 4th grade teacher, science teacher and environmental education consultant and having seen outdoor environmental education programs from the perspective of a parent and a teacher, I have decided this all makes me an outdoor environmental education elder.
First of all, what you are doing matters; this work matters. Don’t forget, be proud. The world needs outdoor education now more than ever. The world needs citizens with the knowledge, awareness and desire to live with the earth not against it. This is difficult when children are not spending enough time outdoors. Their lives are overscheduled with activities, they have less freedom to explore their neighborhoods and combined with fewer places to be in the “more than human world” they have become a generation indoors. You are the antidote because only by getting outdoors will children gain the appreciation, knowledge and sense of wonder needed to become stewards of the earth. We know from our own experience the rewards of being outdoors. Only by being outdoors will children reap the physical and psychological benefit the research and our own experiences has shown comes from getting out there.
There is a story to tell, so be a story sharer. Let the land, water and sky help you. Let the children help tell the story as well. Ecology is filled with fascinating characters, interrelationships, conflicts, heroes and more. Whatever it is that you are teaching, there should be a theme with the connections that will help children understand and remember. Don’t teach a bunch of random facts or activities. Share your story in the style that suits you. Back in the eighties I used an Indiana Jones adventure to connect lessons on ecology to save an endangered species. Wilderness survival classes began with a plane crash that required learning outdoor living skills to get back to safety. A lesson on forest ecology began with the story of a red eft. Geology is a journey back in time. It might a short story told in a 90 minute lesson or a longer story over 3-4 days. As the stories are shared, there are some things to keep in mind.
Teach local. There is amazing everywhere. The animals and plants living wherever it is you live, teach the same lessons as those in the jungle, desert or artic. Where you live has mind-blowing flora and fauna that inspire wonder. The best part of all, is that once children learn wonder at your nature center they will be more attentive to what is around their homes. They will be having direct experiences. The lessons from catching a frog far outweigh a website, movie or video of even the most amazing wildlife.
Connect to their home places. It helps to know something about the children with whom you are working. Learn about where they live, what animals and plants might they encounter back home. Talk to teachers about the community. Are there parks, forests, lakes or ponds you can refer to in your lessons? By reading their local newspapers you can relate what you are teaching to the environmental issues back home. Don’t prejudge the kids based on where they live as rich and spoiled or rowdy or whatever. Let them introduce themselves. Expectations lead to reality.
Teach love. Let there be no “ecophobia,” first described by David Sobel, this concept is important to those of us who work with children. Ecophobia is a “fear of environmental problems and the natural world.” Fear is not a great motivator. Love works much better. The stories you tell should be about the wonder of the “more than human world.” The stories should teach how it all works by fostering an awareness of our connection and love for the outdoors that comes from learning through play, exploration, guidance, fun and wondering.
Photo courtesy of the Gray Family Foundation.
Teach wonder. Look for teachable moments – the times when a child’s questions takes you off track but into a good place, or when a warbler lands on a branch just above your head while you are trying to explain how a sedimentary rock is formed, or when a rainstorm gives you a chance to define a watershed while standing in a puddle. These moments can become part of the story that you are telling. Be open and aware of teachable moments by learning about the place you are working. Explore by spending time walking and sitting. Learn by listening to people who know the land. Read. Gain your own sense of being by learning the natural and human history of the place. Then you can be aware of your part in the story. Be open. A sense of wonder is the greatest gift you can give children.
There are two parts to having a well-developed sense of wonder. One part is the ability to see the wonder in the world, the wow, the amazing, the how is that possible? It is also the ability to wonder, to ask questions, to know there is more to know. Let their curiosity guide the story you are sharing. Be sure the students know it is okay to wonder. Celebrate the good questions. When a child’s face lights up in the presence of wonder, you have done your job.
Teach science. Facts matter, a theory is not a guess. Knowledge is collected through experimentation and observation. Then, based on the accumulation of facts, theories are developed to explain what is going on. Decision making should be based on facts. Don’t just tell children how our knowledge was figured out. Have them figure things out for themselves through the activities and lessons you plan. The scientific method is not just for scientists. It is okay to say, “I don’t know, let’s find out.” even if you can’t find out at the moment. By figuring out a way to learn for themselves it can be an opportunity to experience how science works.
Teach hope. There are reasons to be optimistic. The wild is not all gone. There is still much beauty and wonder to be experienced. Human-caused problems have human solutions. Small actions multiplied by millions both cause and can solve problems. The Clean Air and Clean Water Acts have made a huge difference. The Montreal protocols, an international treaty banning chlorofluorocarbons has led to the closing of the hole in the ozone layer. Species that were once endangered are now safe from extinction. Yes, there is much to do, but by focusing on what is working you will inspire children more than focusing on what is not working. That just leads to doom, despair and hopelessness.
Teach action. Children need to understand their role in a democracy. This means having knowledge of environmental issues, at local, national and international levels. The knowledge will help them take action and not feel overwhelmed by the attitude there is nothing to be done. Children have the right and responsibility to let their elected officials know how they feel. They will be the ones making decisions in the future as voters and consumers.
Teach effectively. It is okay to expect good behavior, and if that means disciplining your students then do so, it doesn’t mean being mean. I have seen too many times educators talking when children are talking. I admit to having given too many chances and have to remind myself that I am not being fair to the kids that are behaving. Have expectations for their behavior and hold them to it. It’s as simple as waiting until you have their attention before speaking. If needed involve teachers to get support. Do not let one or two students prevent the whole group from having a positive experience. Kids do understand limits, just be fair and consistent, they don’t like hypocrites.
Another way to prevent discipline problems is to build relationships. This can happen by listening and talking while sharing a meal or while walking. Ask questions, make jokes, and connect with some knowledge of popular culture. Be yourself, don’t try to be too cool.
Time is limited so avoiding distractions is key. While it is called outdoor education for a reason and it is true, there is no bad weather, there is only bad gear and lots of children have bad gear. Be aware: wet, cold and tired students are not going to learn. A shorter outdoor lesson with more focus is better than a longer lesson to the point of whining. Location, location, location, it matters where you teach. Think about the places you stop. Is there sun in their eyes? Is it noisy? Are there distractions? Is it wet? Is it safe? Is it safe for the plants and animals that live there?
Don’t be a slave to your agenda, sometimes it will be time to move on before you are ready and other times lessons slow down when children are so engrossed time stops. Whatever material you don’t get to, it will be okay. Don’t worry about not finishing, you are never going to teach everything anyway. Don’t be afraid to admit a lesson is a failure. It is better to cut your losses and move on rather than to plow through. Be aware of what they have already learned and activities they have already done. If you are at a center where more than one instructor will be working with the children be sure to know what the other naturalists are doing. There is too much to do and learn to repeat things. Outdoor education is less about the content and more about the experience. Almost always chose action over talking.
Enjoy, let the children see your passion and if you don’t have it anymore, it is time to do something else. Be the best you can be, don’t settle for mediocrity even if others are. Know why you’re doing what you are doing and do it with passion.
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Dan Kriesberg is the author of A Sense of Place, Teaching Children about the Environment with Picture Books and Think Green, Books and Activities for Kids, as well as over 100 articles on environmental education and essays about his personal experiences in the outdoors. He lives on Long Island with his wife, Karen and two sons, Zack and Scott. Dan is a sixth grade science teacher at Friends Academy. Whenever possible he spends his time in wild places backpacking, hiking and hanging out.