Nisqually Tribal Council joins with NTPS to celebrate Native education


The combined North Thurston Public Schools Board of Directors and the Nisqually Tribal Council joint meeting focused on celebrating ways the school district and the tribe work in partnership with new and expanding educational opportunities for teaching the district’s students and staff about their neighbor’s culture. The meeting took place on Tuesday, June 4 at the district’s John Gott Administrative Center on College Avenue.

Although the Nisqually Indian Tribe recently held elections resulting in several changes in leadership with many of the new leaders not at this meeting, there was representation from the tribe, with positive reports on the school and tribe partnership appearing in all the presentations. 

Maximum representation

NTPS Director of Student Achievement Sarah Rich and Native Student Program Specialist Jerad Koepp presented information about efforts to facilitate “Maximum Representation for American Indian Students.”

One way this maximum representation is happening is in the way Native students are now able to identify themselves. Whereas previously they had one option -- American Indian/ Alaska Native -- they now have 38 options, including 35 specific Washington State Tribes, one of which is the Nisqually Indian Tribe, according to the presentation information.

Another way in which Maximum Representation is playing outcomes through changes in applying federal data reporting rules. These rules are based on the U.S. Census, but traditionally Native students identifying themselves as Hispanic or Latino or of two or more races do not appear in the data as Natives, Rich and Koepp explained.

“Hispanic/ Latino (person of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin regardless of race), American Indian/ Alaskan Native (AI/AN Person having origins in any of the original peoples of North and South American and who maintains tribal affiliation or community attachment), and two or more races (person who identifies as more than one federal race category)” are overlapping categories, and a person may fit in one, two or even all three, as seen in the presentation. 

To get a more accurate indication of all students in the district who are at least partly Native, the district added them up as follows.

Students who are exclusively AI/AN (191) + AI/AN and Hispanic (288) + AI/AN and one or more other races (351) = 830 Native American students. That number is 5.3% of the district’s students, as opposed to the old calculation of only the 191 AI/AN-only students, 1.2% of the students in the district.

Koepp observed that students who identify as Hispanic or two or more races don’t get their full representation, so that’s why the district is making this change: “We want to see and recognize all our native students.” To learn more about NTPS’ Native Student Program, see its web page.

Tribal Education Liaison Bill Kallappa of the Nisqually Tribe – and a member of the State Board of Education – thanked Rich and Koepp for their efforts. He recalled, “as a student in the 1980s, I only had one box to check.” American Indian/ Alaskan Native was only option he had back then, so he expressed his appreciation for the new approach.

Students from River Ridge High School's Native Studies Program, with their teacher Alison McCartan (left), recount their experiences and learning opportunities in a presentation at the NTPS and Nisqually Tribal Council joint meeting.
Students from River Ridge High School's Native Studies Program, with their teacher Alison McCartan (left), recount their experiences and learning …

River Ridge Native Studies Program

The Native Studies Program at River Ridge High School was also featured in a presentation at the meeting. Teacher Alison McCartan, together with Koepp and five students in the program, presented the highlights.

In 2023-24, the Native Studies Program offered three courses: 11th grade U.S. History, 11th grade Literature, and 12th grade Civics, all through Native Perspectives. Two more courses are being added in 2024-25 to make it a curriculum spanning all four years of high school. 

McCartan explained that Native students have first preference in enrollment in the Native Studies Program, and that 50% of the 36 students in the program this year are Native Americans.

Another feature Koepp noted is that it is being offered as dual enrollment with City University of Seattle. Students completing the full five courses will graduate with 25 college credit hours. There is also a partnership with Pacific Lutheran University; RRHS’ Native Studies teachers have taught at the university in Tacoma.

As for the courses at RRHS, “guest speakers have been a cornerstone of the program since its beginning,” Koepp remarked. A list of some of the guest teachers include university faculty, state and tribal government leaders, authors, and teachers of native culture and life skills.

Some of the local tribes’ educators involved in the courses have been Antonette Squally and Catalina Squally (Nisqually language teachers), Michelle Lawrence and Mikayla Lawrence (Cowlitz tribal council member and Native publisher), Keoni Kalama (Nisqually and Northern Cheyenne; Nisqually Horse Ranch), and Officer Trey Birdtail (Nisqually Fish & Wildlife).

Field trips, student action projects and interactive events in the community have also served as crucial parts of the educational experience. Some of these experiences have included a display at Timberland Regional Library, Billy Frank, Jr. Celebration, indigenous cooking classes, cedar weaving, Capitol Classroom projects, RRHS Indigenous People’s Day, multicultural assembly presentation, Rose Island Farm field trip, and Nisqually Horse Ranch.

Civics students even had the opportunity to work on HB 1956, which according to the Washington State Legislature website, is a bill “addressing fentanyl and other substance use prevention education.”

Aspire Academy’s Learning from Native Voices

Aspire Performing Arts Academy faculty and students presented their middle school program, Learning from Native Voices. Teacher Jenna Wittmann and Koepp interviewed four students about their experiences, particularly field trips they have taken.

One of these trips allowed the students to participate in and make a presentation at the 50th-anniversary celebration of the Boldt decision regarding Native tribes’ salmon fishing rights and sovereignty. On another trip, all the seventh graders at Aspire were welcomed to the Nisqually Indian Reservation, where they learned about Nisqually history, culture, and traditional activities.

One student recounted her first chance ever to ride a horse, while another enthusiastically mentioned what he called “the most competitive game of bingo ever.” Another student mentioned the extensive work being done in horse rescue among the Nisqually.

The trips required planning and collaboration between NTPS and the Nisqually Indian Tribe. Ultimately, it gave the students a first-hand learning experience, seeing what life in the tribe is like; one of the students observed that hearing and seeing Nisqually history first-hand provides a much more impactful experience than just reading about it in a history book. “I think this experience benefited my learning. Ms. Wittmann is a really good teacher, but we had a whole new experience going to see how the Nisqually live.”

NTPS presents to the Nisqually Tribal Council a piece of student art depicting salmon and representing relevant ecological issues. Board Vice President Dr. Jennifer Thomas (left) presents the artwork, "We Fish for Our Tribal Community," to Tribal Education Liaison Bill Kallappa (right).  Evergreen Forest fifth grader Marshawn Kautz-Simmons, with "a little help from his friends," created the piece.
NTPS presents to the Nisqually Tribal Council a piece of student art depicting salmon and representing relevant ecological issues. Board Vice …


Board President Gretchen Maliska recognized student representative to the Board Caroline Henderson and gave her a gift from the board.

The meeting concluded with two special presentations. In one, the schools presented a piece of art to the Nisqually, with Kallappa accepting it on the tribe’s behalf. Maliska stated, “North Thurston Public Schools is proud to present this artwork to the Nisqually Tribal Council from Evergreen Forest Elementary School fifth-grade student Marshawn Kautz-Simmons.”

The four-foot-long wooden, salmon-shaped art stemmed from a lesson about the complex issue of chemicals in tires which enhance safety and longevity, but which negatively impact salmon when these chemicals enter waterways. The young artist used recycled bicycle tires as fish skin and opted for “the medicine colors of red, black, and white for the fish,” Maliska stated. Kautz-Simmons enjoys fishing with his father in the Nisqually River, the board president added.

A student and paraeducator, both enrolled members of the Cowlitz tribe, performed a special Coast Salish blanketing ceremony for retiring Superintendent Dr. Debra Clemens. Laura Bowman, a paraeducator in the Native Student Program, and RRHS junior Francheska Helton conducted the ceremony, wrapping Clemens in the blanket. Kallappa remarked for the benefit of those attending the meeting, “the blanketing ceremony is one of the highest honors” from the tribe.

The next joint meeting of the two groups is scheduled for November 19, 2024 at 6 p.m., to be hosted by the Nisqually Tribal Council.

Update: June 8, 2024. We updated this story to add details about the blanketing ceremony.


3 comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here

  • JHermes

    During the start-of-the year orientation days, all of the faculty, school by school, visited the Nisqually Cultural Center. I thought it was excellent that everyone went! We learned more about the history, language, and culture. It was a great opportunity.

    Saturday, June 8 Report this

  • GinnyAnn

    I'm extremely pleased to read about the education and collaboration with the Nisqually Indian Tribe at North Thurston Schools. I only wish every school in our country followed this example. I believe this program shows the best Indian education I've heard of for teens here. Learning that being Indian makes you proud of your heritage and part if the wider community of Indian Country helps with self-esteem, especially when so much of the non-Indian population of America remains unaware of the American Indians living among them. I know that when I was in school in the 50's and 60's, being Indian meant being marginalized in the classroom. Mentioning Indian heritage in the past meant discrimination, so my mother used to claim to be "part Italian" to deflect the bigotry. I hope this program thrives and sets an example for other school districts.

    Saturday, June 8 Report this

  • wildnature


    Wednesday, June 12 Report this