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Confluence of Cultures

Palouse Prairie Charter School

Fourth-grade students at Palouse Prairie Charter School in Moscow, Idaho participated in the Confluence of Cultures expedition. Judy Sobeloff led students in artistic expression of their personal values and family cultures. Gary Dorr, founder of the Nez Perce tribal organization Nimiipuu54, led students and families in building a dugout canoe at Canoe Camp at the Palouse-Clearwater Environmental Institute. Dave Paul from the University of Idaho led students in hand-carving cedar paddles. Expressive art, canoe-building, and paddle-carving were integral parts of our study of colonization, the indigenous peoples of Idaho, how stories reveal culture, and how sharing stories can promote deeper understanding and compassion for ourselves and others. We made this canoe and paddles with Nimiipuu54 to support their mission to “preserve and promote the traditional culture of the Nimiipuu across the traditional territory” and as a symbol of our hopes for the confluence of cultures.

The Essential Question that guided our projects’ focus was:

How do people contribute to awareness and understanding of their lives and the lives of their communities through art-making?

We wanted students to gain knowledge and understanding of their own and others’ cultures, and to gain compassionate curiosity about the diverse world we share. The arts of writing, visual journaling, painting, woodworking and traditional canoe-making impacted students’ awareness and understanding of their own lives and the lives of the Nimiipuu peoples who have inhabited this land for thousands of years. We saw high levels of engagement and growth in knowledge and understanding of indigenous history and culture. We also saw throughout the process of carving paddles and building a dugout canoe that participants – students, families and experts – gained a deepened awareness of their connection to the waters and landscapes where these traditional watercraft have traveled for centuries, and to the histories of these landscapes and the peoples who have inhabited the lands that we now share. Students learned about themselves, their own families, and their classmates’ cultures through creating and sharing Visual Journals, “Where I am From” poems, and “Tree of Life” paintings. All of these activities led to an increased understanding of who we are as individuals and a diverse community.

At the conclusion of the project, students responded to questions related to the identified Standards:

The specific standard that was the focus of the paddle-carving process at Canoe Camp was: VA:Cn10.1.4.a. Create works of art that reflect community cultural traditions. Throughout this project, students learned the necessary skills of carving their own cedar paddle, and participated in the lengthy process of carving a 26-foot long traditional cedar dugout canoe. At the conclusion of the project, student responses to “What did you learn in the process of hand-carving a paddle at Canoe Camp?” show the lessons they learned. Some responses were:
– It is fine to make a mistake because your mistake can make it more interesting.
– I can work hard for a good result.
– Even a piece of wood can be something beautiful and helpful.
– You have to work hard and sometimes you will not get what you want.
– You have to put time into your work, rather than rushing and messing up. Your hard work will pay off if you try.
– Nothing is perfect and nothing is easy.
– You can turn a mistake into a masterpiece.
– As Gary taught us, “There is no right way, but there are a lot of good ways.”
– You don’t always get what you want, but you get what you need.
– I like doing thing thoroughly and taking my time.


Our school community – students, families, staff, and volunteers – is impacted by this project every year. This year one very impactful moment was when one of our fourth-grade students (Nimiipuu and Yakima) shared his grass dance at a school-wide presentation. He danced together with Stacia Morfin from Nez Perce Traditions, LLC while Pistol Pete drummed. They came to share Nimiipuu culture and stories with our school community, and this presentation gave our student the space and courage to express his culture and share that with our entire school community. Seeing him dance so confidently and comfortably was impactful for all of the students, teachers, and staff at PPCS. In addition, student responses to the prompt “At Canoe Camp, what did you learn about Nimiipuu culture and history?” show impact: “Culturally I feel like it gave me the courage to learn more about me and where I came from. I learned more about Nez Perce people and what they believe and how important cedar and paddles are to them;” and “Gary’s story telling was cool and I liked that he was there with us. Learning about the Nimiipuu culture gave me the perspective of how life was back then, how they had to work for everything that they had.”


Students benefited tremendously from having Judy, Gary, and Dave engage them in an authentic and meaningful way. Students expressed excitement to learn that “art can be done anywhere, any time, with any materials.” And Gary hosted inspiring Canoe Camps with storytelling and ceremonies. We were thankful to adjust the project to accommodate changes in personnel. As the former fourth-grade teacher became Instructional Coach, she helped the new teacher build relationships with Judy, Gary and Dave. We collaboratively mentored her through the challenges of learning a new curriculum, understanding how to teach about colonization, how to authentically incorporate culture into teaching, and how to manage a large project. We also carefully adjusted the project to incorporate Judy’s new skillset in arts-based therapy. We feel fortunate to continue to grow this program through staff turn-over and we believe that the major factor for our success is strong relationships among all project partners. The high level of communication, trust, and collaboration that we have developed over the years truly supports overcoming challenges. We are happy to report that every project partner has expressed interest in continuing our collaborations. My advice for others is to take time to engage meaningfully with experts. Building genuine relationships is the key to engaging students in truly authentic work.