The Essential Question that guided our projects’ focus was:
How do people gain 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 all share to carry with them into the future. The arts of theater, woodworking and traditional boat-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 a high level of engagement and growth in knowledge and understanding of indigenous history and culture throughout the project. We also saw throughout the process of carving paddles and building bullboats that participants — students, families and experts — gained a deepened awareness of their sense of place and 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.
At the conclusion of the project, students responded to questions related to the identified Standards:
Students responses to “What is the historical and cultural significance of the bullboats our crew built with and for Nimiipuu54?” clearly show their learning of these standards: (1) “Bullboats have not been built for about 150 years and it is really cool that we got to build them. Gary told us that he is the only one alive in his tribe to make a bullboat, so we are lucky that he is teaching us things that are important to him and the Nez Perce Tribe. Nimiipuu54 tries to protect and promote traditional culture. It is important that we do this because it could be lost forever. Other people can now use these bullboats and learn more about them and their history that is important to the Nez Perce people.” (2) “Nimiipuu women and children used [bullboats] to escape the U.S. Cavalry, and they have not been built in a long time. We want to help keep their culture alive and reflect pre-1855 Treaty. We were able to imagine what it would have felt like to be ten years old in 1877 and building this boat in order to escape the U.S. Cavalry as their families were being chased off of their homelands. I think I would have felt scared and confused.” (3) Most people living here don’t know about this part of history and we want to help teach it.”
At the final celebration students, family members and partners participated in a moving ceremony led by Gary Dorr (Nimiipuu54), Stacia Morphin and Pistol Pete (Nez Perce Tourism) and Ciarra Greene (Northwest Indian College). An impactful moment was seeing tears stream down Stacia and Ciarra’s faces as students presented what they learned and their hopes for Nimiipuu54. This moment touched me deeply. Later Stacia told me that she didn’t know this type of education was happening anywhere, let alone with fourth-graders on her ancestors’ homeland. Another impactful moment was when all three bullboats left the docks, being pulled by canoes to cross the Snake River in commemoration of our understanding of the impacts of colonization on the Nimiipuu peoples, an eagle flew overhead. Eagle symbolizes strength, wisdom and courage. We were all gathered to celebrate the wisdom students gained, their strength to carry forth this knowledge, and their courage to engage in a compassionate confluence of cultures into the future. I can see how five years of efforts to learn to teach this content in a culturally-responsive manner has led to strong relationships with Native project partners and deeply impactful learning experiences for my students.
My students benefited tremendously from having Judy Sobeloff and Gary Dorr engage them in a meaningful way when they were just returning to school after a full year of remote learning in the pandemic. Judy led us in a writing process with much needed enthusiasm, positivity, high-quality instruction and friendship. Gary hosted inspiring Boat Camps for paddle-carving, storytelling and bullboat-making. Working intimately with Gary and Judy was a rich experience for students, families and me as a teacher. 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. Due to the pandemic we adjusted the project to build traditional bullboats with and for the Nez Perce tribal organization Nimiipuu54. We attempted to use buffalo hides and faced many challenges. After 35 days of trying to prepare four different buffalo hides, they were not suitable for bullboats due to factors related to attempting to build something for the first time in 150 years and relying largely on oral history to learn how to do so. We ended up building two bullboats with willow frames and canvas, as an example of the confluence of cultures, and a third with a moose hide. If we choose to do traditional crafts with animal hides in the future, I would pay someone to prepare them. Although this was an incredible experience, preparing the hides is simply too much work to be sustainable into the future.