“Our kids are telling us, something’s not right.”
This is what Riel LaPlant said when he described what motivated he and other educators to found Tahlequah Dreams, an innovative new project-based science learning program combining Native and Western knowledge for middle-school-age urban Native youth.
“People often think of Western and Native science as two different things. Kind of like oil and water,” said LaPlant. “People say they don’t mix. But that’s not true. Oil and water can mix. You just need something called an emulsifier.”
Emulsification is one of the guiding principles that LaPlant has in mind as they design a curriculum that blends two very distinct ways of understanding the world around us.
The students will spend a year following the engineering design process, learning from experts in both Indigenous and Western sciences, and proposing solutions. They will witness salmon spawning, and learn from Native fisherman how to catch, process, and eat salmon.
“There is this whole cycle of energy we want them to experience,” said LaPlant.
The program aims to prepare its Native youth participants for post-secondary education by giving them real-world situations and teaching how to solve problems.
Orca mother’s grief inspires change
The story of Tahlequah, the orca mother who in 2018 carried her dead calf for at least 17 days and 1,000 miles off the Pacific Northwest coast, became a symbol for the devastating impact of environmental degradation and climate change. The original name the founders considered for their program was Tahlequah’s Warning. But after they heard she had birthed a new calf, they saw a more hopeful vision, and changed it to Tahlequah’s Dream.
Two years later, a breakthrough study was published that provided an important clue to the mystery of why so many coho salmon, which are a large part of an orca’s diet, were dying as soon as they reached the Seattle area’s urban waters. Researchers had discovered that a chemical found in tire dust is entering local creeks, killing 40 to 80% of returning coho salmon. Some of the data for this study was gathered in Burien’s Miller Creek by volunteers during the annual Community Salmon Investigation.
That study inspired the first problem that students in the program will be asked to tackle— “How can we reduce runoff from going into our local creeks?”
The program not only aims to help the students grow as leaders and as scientists, but also discover ways to create change and how to rely on each other as a part of a community.
LaPlant is an educator in Seattle Public Schools who formerly worked in Highline Public Schools. He is an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Nation.
Passing the mic
“The most important thing we can do is to pass the mic to the kids, and to pass the mic to the people who are most marginalized,” said LaPlant. “We want to give the kids a platform to learn, grow, and spread their own message and solutions.”
The program is not just focusing on nurturing the next generation of scientists. Another goal is to facilitate community and strengthen identity among urban Native youth. Many live very far from their traditional homelands. The educators aim to instill a sense of community between the youth, while also helping them cultivate a reciprocal relationship with the land they live in now.
Highline’s Native Education Program facilitates many opportunities like this for Burien’s urban Native youth. Sara Marie Ortiz, program manager of Highline Public Schools Native Education program and an enrolled member of Acoma Pueblo, is a program mentor.
“This is a part of continuum of knowing, being, and doing,” said Ortiz. “All of us here have had really good teachers. We are doing this because we were taught to do so. It is an Indigenous value to learn by doing and by serving.”
This program is open to any urban Native youth in the Seattle area and is funded through a grant from Running Strong for American Indian Youth. Unkitawa is the 501(c)(3) fiscal sponsor of the program.