Umatilla tribe grows its own
New high school opens doors
PORTLAND, Ore. -"It's time to grow our own," someone in the Confederated
Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation said recently. "Grow our own" meaning
opening Nixyaawi Community School in late August.
"Grow our own" with an enrollment of 48 teenage students - 42 of which are
Natives - three teachers, a principal, a curriculum specialist and a
five-member school board composed entirely of tribal members.
The Umatillas opened their charter high school in style. It is a school
where project-based learning will be used to teach students Indian history,
culture and language even as they study standard subjects necessary to meet
federal and state certification. To the steady, stately rhythm of the
drums, veterans led the grand entry, carried the tribal flag and the
American flag into the gym - part of the complex of buildings the tribe
donated for the school's use. People came for the ceremony that inaugurated
the first day of school in their work clothes, but shawls and moccasins
"Nixyaawi - pronounced Nix-yow-way- grew out of a partnership," said school
board chairman Kat Brigham when she took the podium. "We have so many
people to thank. People in our tribal departments and community, the Oregon
Department of Education, and the Pendleton School District. We just had a
lot of people involved in the planning and what we've been working on for
quite some time."
Working is what they do on the Umatilla, and it's a way of working that
produces results. It's a single-minded persistence. Determination set on
bolstering the strength of the tribe and ensuring its survival. "If there
was ever the little tribe that could," said longtime Portland consultant on
tribal affairs, Laura Berg, "it's the Umatilla. They're just a handful of
folks out in Eastern Oregon, and their achievements both on behalf of
tribal members and their influence in our larger region go way beyond what
one might expect."
In 1970s when the Indian Self-Determination Act was passed, the Umatilla
tribal government, established in 1949, had only a single department. Today
the tribe's departments include natural resources, social services, water,
zoning, health, housing, education, culture and more. "When I came on board
in the mid-1970s," said Brigham who is also a member of the tribe's
governing body, the board of trustees, "there were five employees. Now we
have 500 plus."
Thirty years of growth have netted the Umatillas gains in a number of
areas. "One of our main achievements has been partnering just like what
we've done here with our new charter school," said Brigham. "Instead of
spending our resources on litigation, we've tried to cooperate where we
could, and we've been fortunate that the county chose to work with us.
Several years back now, we signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the
Umatilla County on zoning and permitting on the reservation, and now the
tribe has control over those important aspects of land use."
"We also have an enforcement partnership with the state and county, and
although we're not into civil law yet, we do handle all traffic related
matters in our own tribal courts," Brigham said. "Our casino has been the
big bread basket that's helped us. After it got going in the early 1990s,
we've really been able to have the funds to move forward.
"We even brought our fish back after 70 years. Yes," Brigham said, "we had
70 years without our salmon, and we brought them back. Now we have regular
seasons for salmon on the Umatilla River. We got a Harvard award for that
in 2002. We're trying to make some positive approaches here, and they
Population has more than kept pace with the Umatilla's efforts. In the
1970s, enrolled members of the tribe numbered around 1,200. Today the
roster lists 2,450 people. It was clearly time for the Confederated Tribes
of the Umatilla Reservation to grow their own.
"We're going to work on respect here," Nixyaawi principal Annie Tester
said. "It's the basis for Native American culture. Respect for each other.
Showing respect to each other. And every morning we start school with
everyone gathering in a circle and talking about respect and the culture
and what that means as far as the school day is concerned."
Going from lofty ideals to actual practice though takes some doing. But
Tester seems up to the task. "Several students were late for the opening
circle one morning," she said. "I told them they'd have to wait until the
circle was finished and then they could ask the group if it was okay to
enter." Tester laughed. "My thought is that they will try very hard to show
up on time in the future so they don't have to single themselves out in
front of their peers."
Nixyaawi is a public school. "In the state of Oregon people can apply to
start a charter school that focuses the curriculum in any number of areas,"
Tester explained. "Just as this school board wants to see a
culturally-based program here on the Umatilla reservation, there are
schools in Portland, for example, that are theater-based. Charter schools
are the way the state provides opportunities for communities interested in
offering very specific and particular educational opportunities."
Not surprising, the goal of the school board is to teach tribal history,
culture and language. Brigham and other tribal representatives traveled to
a similar Native school, Kanu O Ka'Aina Charter School in Hawaii, this past
summer to see their vision in action.
"We appreciated seeing teachers speaking Native language part of the time,"
Brigham said. "They also used blocks of time for interdisciplinary
approaches like we plan on doing; and individualized plans of study so that
students can progress at their own rates. We were especially encouraged by
one case in which a student came in with a third grade reading level and
because of the focused attention ended the year at the sixth grade level."
Students at Nixyaawi will get lots of attention if things go as planned.
Every student will have an adult mentor from the community chosen on the
basis of interests, and with whom they will meet at least an hour a week.
While mentors will not be paid, those employed by the tribe will have work
release time for their service. Mentors will help students create projects
in which they can apply skills learned at school in the larger arena.
"That's the whole point of a project-based curriculum. If a student is
interested in the fish and the river, for example, and their mentor helps
them learn how to do water quality tests. They bring that data back and
analyze it, summarize it into a quantifiable written report that will be
shared at quarterly public presentations the school plans to hold," Tester
"The same applies to those interested in wellness. Our students started
this week running their own food service. They will determine menus and
figure out ordering based on federal guidelines for serving sizes. This
entails figuring out food costs as well, learning the life skill of feeding
a family good quality food on a budget," Tester said, "And they're starting
So it goes with the Umatilla tribe. A tribe that has doubled its population
in the last three decades even as its influence has spread from the
reservation to the region and beyond. A tribe that might some day have an
elementary school to call its own as well. A tribe that with the opening of
a charter high school is for the first time since white settlement
disrupted the culture in the 19th century, growing its own again.