Share Our Voices, Hear Our Stories: First Foods

Forum Overview

Share Our Voices, Hear Our Stories is a series of forums designed to convene Native American and Alaska Native students and families to inform efforts to create an education system where Native students can thrive in Washington. The Region 16 Comprehensive Center (R16CC), one of the 19 centers funded by the U.S. Department of Education to support states in enhancing student success, sponsors these forums. R16CC, which comprises a network of 29 educational service districts throughout Alaska, Oregon, and Washington, has a Tribal advisory board for the state of Washington that specifically focuses on enhancing wellbeing and opportunities for Native students in Washington. The R16CC Washington Tribal Advisory Board hosts the Share Our Voices, Hear Our Stories forums in collaboration with Kauffman & Associates, Inc. (KAI).

On February 21, 2024, R16CC and KAI delivered a session in the Share Our Voices, Hear Our Stories series. This forum explored the theme of First Foods.

Forum Agenda:

  • Opening words
  • Introductions and overview
  • First foods – Cree Whelshula
  • Small group discussion
  • Witnessing
  • Next steps and closing

Opening Remarks

The forum opened with R16CC Advisory Board Member Mary Wilber (Osoyoos Indian Band) greeting attendees and sharing a song.

Beth Geiger, WA Director for R16CC, then provided welcoming remarks. She began by sharing the background and intent of the ongoing Share Our Voices, Hear Our Stories series. These sessions are a platform for R16CC WA Tribal Advisory to connect with Native students and families in Washington state and surrounding areas. The purpose of these forums is to create a space for Native American students, families, and community members to discuss the well-being of Native students and to reflect on teachings shared by a storyteller. Since September 2020, R16CC and KAI have held four of these sessions per school year. The 2023 to 2024 school year marks the fifth and, possibly, final year of the 5-year federal grant that funds R16CC. This spring, R16CC will re-apply for the grant, and they anticipate knowing by late summer whether they will be funded for another 5-year cycle or if this forum will evolve into something different after the current school year concludes.

Next, Dr. Aislinn Rioux (Blackfeet/Crow), the meeting facilitator, greeted participants. She briefly reviewed agenda and described practices for making the best use of the meeting time. She then introduced Cree Whelshula (Colville/Coeur d’Alene), the storyteller for this session.

Storytelling Session

Ms. Whelshula began the storytelling component of this session by discussing how storytelling benefits literacy. Because Indigenous communities in what is now the United States did not have a writing system prior to colonization, there is sometimes an assumption that Indigenous people lack literacy. On the contrary, the stories that these communities pass down through generations contain every key literacy concept.

Ms. Whelshula told a story about Fly and Bear by sharing each sentence in Salish, followed by the English translation of that sentence.

Breakout Discussion Report-Outs

Participants divided into virtual breakout rooms, where they reflected on the story above and responded to the following discussion questions.

  • Where do we see Fly and Bear in our own lives?
  • How does the power of oral storytelling in Indigenous cultures challenge mainstream perceptions of literacy and education?
  • How are these stories transmitted through family or peers?

When the participants returned from their virtual breakout rooms, they shared what they had discussed. The following sections summarize key themes from these report-outs.

The Interconnected Roles of Fly and Bear

In this story, Bear mirrors the role of parents and caregivers. He is the one who cares for and guides others, and he reminds us of the importance of giving and making sacrifices for the benefit of our communities, when needed.

Fly’s role in the story underscores the need to respect even the smallest and weakest among us, in acknowledgement that every community member has an important role to play. Everyone has something important to give, and in this case, Fly shared his song. Fly’s actions in the story illustrate the importance of honoring the cycles of life, giving thanks for what we are given, and sharing songs at certain times.

The session participants observed that most of us play the roles of both Fly and Bear at different points and settings in our lives. Sometimes we are leaders, and at other times we are messengers whose role is to share a song or tell a story.

The Power of Storytelling

Participants described Indigenous storytelling as a way of being and knowing. It carries powerful teachings and perpetuates culture and values. Stories are precious gifts to be shared with family and community members, and storytelling is often an act of courage in the context of the attempted erasure of Indigenous lifeways and cultures.

As participants pointed out, storytelling also carries many benefits in terms of supporting education and literacy. In mainstream learning settings, one person typically transfers knowledge to a group of students, meaning that students may only receive this information in a single way and are often expected to take away a single correct answer. Oral storytelling, on the other hand, values multiple perspectives. Listeners often take away different lessons after hearing the same story, and further, storytellers often deliver the same story in different ways. In addition, storytelling encourages listeners to immerse themselves in the story and to interact with the storyteller, and this engagement often leads to more effective learning. Finally, as one participant noted, storytelling often helps listeners to visualize the information, which helps them to better understand and retain the teachings.

This participant said, “When we write things down, it’s often because they’re supposed to be forgotten. If we didn’t write them down, we would forget them. When you’re hearing and listening to things with your heart, you don’t forget them.”

Storytelling in Indigenous Languages

Several participants highlighted the value of storytelling in Native languages. Sharing stories this way presents an opportunity for those who may not speak their Native language to hear it spoken. In addition, telling these stories in Indigenous languages helps to teach and reinforce tribal values, as well as to strengthen Indigenous identity.

One participant shared, “I love hearing these stories in our language. It gives me a strong sense of identity that I don’t have in traditional educational settings. It makes me feel proud, which makes me want to listen even more.”

Timeline and Next Steps

Ms. Geiger thanked Ms. Whelshula and the session participants. She announced that the next Share Our Voices, Hear Our Stories session will take place on April 24, 2024 with storyteller Maria Pascua.  As a next step, a summary of this session will be developed, which will be shared with all registrants and posted to the R16CC website.

The R16CC WA Tribal Advisory Board:

  • Anthony‌ ‌Craig‌ ‌(Yakama‌ ‌Nation)
  • Cindy Kelly (Delaware Nation)
  • Henry Strom (Yakama Nation)
  • Mary‌ ‌Wilber‌ (‌Osoyoos Indian Band)
  • ‌Patsy‌ ‌Whitefoot‌ ‌(Yakama‌ ‌Nation)‌
  • Shandy Abrahamson (Confederated Tribes of the Colville)

Published April 11, 2024

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