Elementary school students learn about Washington State history in the fourth grade, and much of what they learn is through a program which enables experiencing indigenous culture.
Indigenous history precedes the story of the Oregon Territory, Lewis and Clark, and more modern Washington State history. So students at Whidbey Island Waldorf School experience Native American Culture alongside tribal elders in Potlach, an educational program.
“We don’t start teaching history from when the settlers came,” said teacher and organizer Angela Lindstrom. “There’s so much to learn about prior to the settlers, and it’s best taught by those who were here before us. So, we give the students this immersion experience as a way of educating them.”
Fourth grade Waldorf students from all over the state come to the Whidbey Institute in Clinton for three days to experience Potlach. Elders from various tribes ranging from the Saanich in British Columbia to the Haida in Southeast Alaska are recruited by program coordinators to share culture with the students, who learn of the diversity of Native Americans.
The indigenous story is experienced through different activities and ceremonies. They learn games, arts, crafts, and also practice gift giving and eating ceremonies, known as potlach. They share a communal salmon dinner with the elders.
Potlach is derived from a Chinook word meaning “to share.” Sharing is a critical part of the learning.
“For a lot of our nations, we offered to help at first contact with the settlers and wanted to share, and that idea of sharing is what potlatch is all about,” Paul Wagner, a Saanich elder said. “It’s a completely different world from what my people knew in terms of taking and gathering. We would gather to share with others, rather than take for ourselves.”