Nooksack tribe gifts totem pole to school district

Students will now see a piece of Native American culture every time they walk into Nooksack Valley Middle School.

On Wednesday, Nov. 19, the Nooksack Indian Tribe and the middle school unveiled a totem pole symbolizing a shared commitment to education, and as the tarp was pulled off, students oohed and aahed at the carving.

For the Nooksack Valley School District and the Nooksack Indian Tribe, the totem pole represents the beginning of a partnership.

Before the pole was unveiled, students gathered in the school gym and watched performances from tribe members.

“I never thought we would have heard these songs and saw these dances here, in this gym,” said George Swanaset Jr., a member of the Nooksack tribe who used to be a student in the Nooksack school system.

His father, George Swanaset Sr., carved the totem pole. He carved a thunderbird at the top of the pole, with a mountain goat just below. An owl, representing wisdom, rests above a woman who is cloaking children. He said the pole shows that the tribe and school district are working together, something he said has not happened enough in past years.

The pole will give Native American students something to identify with, he said.

“They’re going to come to school and it’s going to be able to relate to them,” Swanaset Sr. said.

Kevin DeVere, principal at Everson Elementary School, said the Nooksack tribe recognized in 2010 that many of their students were struggling to graduate from high school and had problems with alcohol or drug abuse. The district then decided to assign a task force to work with the tribe and understand how to help those students graduate. He said close to 20 percent of the students in the Nooksack Valley School District are of Native American heritage.

“One of the barriers we found was that (Native American) students walk in and there’s not a whole lot for them to identify with,” DeVere said.

The totem pole is just one effort to change this. Student-made projects about Native American history covered the middle school walls on Wednesday for the school’s “Talking Walls Project.” One room inside the school is dedicated to Native American history, and the artifacts and posters will remain in the room for three months, middle school Principal Joel Vanderyacht said.

DeVere said the elementary school is implementing more Nooksack tribe history into third-grade curriculum as well.

Stephen Jones, a board member for the Nooksack Valley School District, officially accepted the totem pole on behalf of the district.

“I think this is going to last a long, long time,” Jones said.