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Vancouver students learn about Native American cultures during drum-circle assembly

Slowly — and then louder and louder — the rumbling beat of animal skin drums began to reverberate through the halls of Lincoln Elementary School on Tuesday.

Pastor Joseph Scheeler, a leader at All Saints Episcopal Church and the Traveling Day Society, led a group of Native drummers in song in the school’s music room. The performance was broadcast via Zoom to students in classrooms throughout Lincoln and was followed up by a virtually led storytelling session from Ed Edmo, a Shoshone-Bannock poet who shared stories about Native groups in the Columbia River basin.

The Traveling Day Society is an intertribal group that plays flutes and drums at schools, hospitals and other community venues to spread knowledge of generations-old tribal tales through song. Performers at Tuesday’s event represented the Cherokee, Anishinaabe, Shawnee and many other tribes.

For weeks, students at Lincoln and a handful of other schools in Vancouver Public Schools have been learning about the cultural history of many Native American tribes in the Pacific Northwest. As the Thanksgiving holiday approaches, teachers felt placing an emphasis on Indigenous history and values was even more necessary.

In past years, Lincoln’s music and visual art teacher Erik Smith has felt the teaching of history around Thanksgiving has been incomplete.

“As a teacher, I’ve been working for years on teaching this holiday, but never as authentically as I’ve wanted to,” Smith said. “This year, all the stars aligned when (Scheeler) wanted to donate some authentic drums.”

Smith used the drums, made of dried elk or deer skin and wood, in his music classes to introduce the role music plays in Indigenous culture and how it connects people to the Earth. The name of the monthlong unit is called Indigenous Cultural Music.

Scheeler said it’s a special honor for these songs to be taught to young students.

“These songs and these drums are so old, they’re passed orally from drum to drum,” Scheeler said. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to teach about these things, like what it means to have respect for the drum and what it means. Because First Nations People believe it’s alive.”

Grants for arts

Wendy Thompson, a dance and movement instructor at neighboring Lake Shore Elementary School, helped to write a grant that is funding programs at Lincoln and other elementary schools in the district. She and a group of teachers organized similar assemblies at each of the participating schools in the days preceding the holiday.

“I started teaching in Vancouver Public Schools in 1992,” Thompson said. “When I first came, the education on Native Americans was pretty stereotypical, even frightening. Textbooks speak on the first Thanksgiving, but that’s not necessarily the story.”

“The whole grant is about making cultural connections.”

The grant was for $25,000 from ArtsWA, which funds community arts projects in Washington with a focus on those that promote cultural equity and diversity.

An introduction to Native culture and history for young children through music opens the door for the appreciation of Indigenous culture as it becomes a more complex topic for older students. It also serves as a more balanced and accurate way for students to learn about Thanksgiving, teachers say, compared with previous generations. When these students grow up, they’ll do so with a greater awareness for the connections they share with a community that had been previously overshadowed in American education.

Music also proves to be an often more engaging method than in-class learning, teachers said, especially since COVID-19 has forced educators to get more creative with how they engage young students.

“Many students don’t relate to traditional ways of learning. If they aren’t understanding it through lecture or through reading, if they can experience that through their bodies in a physical way through a dance or a game, they’re going to remember it better,” Thompson said.

“Arts now more than ever are essential for self-expression, for relaying some key concepts, oftentimes kids make connections in the arts that they couldn’t make in the classroom.”

Smith has loved the level of engagement he’s seen from students in this unit this year, and recalls a specific moment when one student explained just how the drumming made him feel.

“A third-grader said when he closed his eyes, he felt a spiritual connection to the beat of the Earth. I’m sitting here saying, ‘This is more than I could ever imagine!’ ” Smith said. “That’s exactly what we’re learning here.”

Scheeler said he’s looking forward to continuing these assemblies in the future and hopes that these messages shared in their performance and the curriculum as a whole can help bridge the gap between previously distanced cultures.

“No matter what the history is, I think the meaning we can take from it is: yes, it’s good for people from different cultures to be able to sit down together, but it’s only with that interaction that understanding comes,” Scheeler said. “If we keep sitting in our own circles, we can never really understand one another.