When Valerie Wahchumwah recounts her journey through high school, it is a path peppered with highs and lows. With a soft-spoken quality, save for a sarcastic jab or two, the 18 year-old speaks of her time attending Chief Sealth High School and feeling like she was falling through the cracks in the midst of almost 1,300 students. She worked hard, but she needed teachers who could cater to her learning style and adjust to her needs.
So Wahchumwah, of the Yakama Nation, transferred in 2012 to American Indian Heritage Middle College High School, part of the Seattle Public School (SPS) system.
There, she was able to forge relationships with her teachers in an intimate setting. She had two Native instructors who could supplement courses with narratives often left out of conventional textbooks. She felt like they cared about more than her test scores and grades. They honored the fact that ever since the second grade, she has loved poetry and that class presentations make her painfully nervous.
But the next year, things changed. The teachers she’d loved so much had been relocated to other schools, and the curriculum had gone digital. All her classes were online.
“We would come in, sign in, then would just go on the computer all day,” she said. “There were other students [who] stopped coming because they didn’t feel the inspiration anymore.”
With three Native students enrolled for the 2012-2013 academic year, no Native instructors, no cultural component and an all-digital curriculum, some wondered if there was any reason to call it “Indian Heritage” anymore.
For some, it was just another symptom of chronic decline that started years ago.
Back in the mid-’90s, Indian Heritage boasted more than 100 students, dropout rates well below the SPS district average for Native Americans and a host of college-bound seniors — not to mention sports and performing arts.
Now, almost 40 years after the Native-focused program first opened its doors, Indian Heritage is closing.
SPS spokesperson Teresa Wippel told Real Change on July 16 that what is now called American Indian Heritage Middle College would not be staffed this fall, given the small number of students enrolled. She added that for many years, the program has existed in “name only.”
The decision caps several months of uncertainty. Community leaders have been embroiled in discussions with SPS officials over the fate of Indian Heritage, as well as the soon-to-be demolished Wilson-Pacific Building, which served as the site of the school and bears cherished Native American murals.
To many in the Native community, the imminent closure of Indian Heritage is a heartbreaking loss they fought to prevent, and some hold SPS accountable for its demise.
“I’m devastated,” said Sweetwater Nannauck, of the Tlingit Nation and Idle No More Washington, a movement to protect indigenous treaty rights. “So many of our kids have graduated from there. They need this.”
Sarah Sense-Wilson, of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and chair of the Urban Native Education Alliance (UNEA), said that she and others were determined to hold onto the program’s existence — whatever shape it was in — in hopes of revitalization.
“If we wipe it clean, then we have nothing to work from,” she said.
A slow decay
In the wake of a history in which Native children were hauled off to boarding schools meant to stamp out the “Indian” in the student, Native Americans have long faced systematic educational challenges.
Native students in Washington have the lowest graduation rates and highest dropout rates of any ethnic group, according to data from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI).
For the class of 2012, the statewide graduation rate for Native students was 56.8 percent, compared with 80.4 percent for white students. For the same groups, the statewide dropout rate was 26.8 percent, compared with 11.8 percent.
Native students fare better in the Seattle school district, with a 67 percent graduation rate; but this is still well below the 85 percent average for the district’s white students.
Native-focused schools and programs, many of which were created in response to the 1972 Indian Education Act, serve as places where students can connect to their Native identity, receive education tailored to cultural differences in learning style, study comprehensive Native history and discuss pervasive social issues.
The Indian Heritage School opened in 1974 and rose to its zenith under the leadership of Robert Eaglestaff in the ’90s. By 1996, it encompassed a middle and high school and garnered a wealth of press coverage for its ability to turn students’ lives around — both Native and non-Native.
Students were commuting from as far as Centralia, about 90 miles to the south, and the school had to turn away many seeking enrollment. From 1993 to 1996, every single senior graduated and enrolled in higher education, The Seattle Times reported.
“There was a feeling of ‘all for one, one for all,’ and that everybody had something to offer,” said Rick Harlan, who worked as a substitute teacher at Indian Heritage in the mid-’90s. “There was a great sense of pride and possibility there.”
In 1996 Eaglestaff died unexpectedly while dancing at a powwow, a tragedy that shook the community. Earlier that year, he had told the Seattle Times that he believed Indian Heritage was producing leaders who would help make things right for Native Americans.
When Eaglestaff died, some said that Indian Heritage had lost its soul.
By 2000, the school’s enrollment had dwindled from roughly 120 to 70 students, and the district merged the school with Middle College High School, a small program aimed at dropout prevention that now operates at several sites.
The move effectively eliminated the middle school. Still, many in the community preferred this change to the district’s initial plan to relocate it within John Marshall Alternative School, which had programs for students who were suspended or returning from juvenile detention centers.
In 2010, Indian Heritage took another blow when the district missed a deadline and lost federal funding for a Native culture and academics program called Huchoosedah (“Parents demand ouster of Indian education manager” RC, May 12, 2010). The blunder meant layoffs of two teachers who often provided Indian Heritage students with volunteer opportunities, art classes and help recouping credits.
When Wahchumwah was at Indian Heritage for the 2012-2013 academic year — after the district relocated her teachers and implemented the digital curriculum — there were 15 students enrolled, three of whom were Native, according to the district. Wahchumwah estimated there were only about 10 people in class on any given day.
Indian Heritage had become a ghost of the thriving entity it once was. For some, the decision to close the school wasn’t entirely unexpected.
“The thing that no one is really saying, because we don’t want to confront it, is that Indian Heritage died a long time ago,” said Robert Frederiksen, of the Tsimshian Nation and culture teacher at Indian Heritage in the late ’90s. “The school district [has been] keeping this fiction alive.”
SPS spokesperson Wippel said that given the low enrollment last year at Indian Heritage, the district simply doesn’t have the funds to staff the program. She added that current students will be moving to the Middle College site at Northgate Mall, where one of the former Native instructors now teaches. Students can also enroll at the Middle College of their choice, she said.
“Truly, it’s clear that the Native community that has come to us is very passionate about the idea of having that kind of school,” Wippel said. “But if you have a small number of students, it doesn’t matter which group of parents is advocating for it.”
Wippel said the district doesn’t see relocating the program to Northgate as a closure of the school.
“It’s a physical move that to [the Native community] signifies the end of an era,” she said. “But from our perspective, it’s combining two populations for budget reasons.”
Robin Butterfield, director of the state Office of Native Education, said that the district doesn’t necessarily have to have a Native-focused school to ensure quality education for Native students.
“It’s my hope that regardless of the high school itself, that the needs of these students will be met,” she said.
Since Native students in the district tend to enroll in their neighborhood high schools, Wippel said the district is focused on embedding an understanding of Native history, social studies and current affairs into those existing schools. Starting with fourth-graders in the Southwest region of the district, SPS is rolling out a curriculum on tribal sovereignty called Since Time Immemorial.
But as it stands now, many parents still feel that something systematic and oppressive is happening in traditional public schools. They feel Native students end up invisible to administrators and cut off from the heritage that helps them take pride, form a healthy identity and, ultimately, succeed.
Harlan, who is not Native, believes the persistent achievement gaps should be reason enough to bolster a separate program like Indian Heritage.
“In this case, equal shares is not equitable,” he said. “We’re talking about the next generations of these cultures. Unless we do more, unless we actually provide greater resources for the students that we know darn well need more help, then we’re failing to address the problems that, for generation after generation, there have been barriers for some and not others.”
Advocates of Indian Heritage say that if SPS would commit to making it appealing in the first place, students would come. They see the move as the final deathblow in more than a decade of neglect-driven decline and cite past and present decisions as an ongoing attempt to gut Indian Heritage before its ultimate closure.
For Sense-Wilson, the decision not to staff the program exacerbates longstanding mistrust of the district.
“It’s constant vigilance,” Sense-Wilson said. “We’re always having to keep our eye on what the district is doing, because they don’t consult with us.”
On the docket: demolition
The community is losing more than a deteriorating program. They are losing the building that housed it, at least for now.
The Wilson-Pacific, 1330 N. 90th St., has long been a community and cultural hub for Native-focused activities, many of which have been sponsored by the volunteer-based nonprofit UNEA. The walls feature murals by artist Andrew Morrison that have become treasured symbols for the Native community, and the surrounding area, Licton Springs, is considered a sacred site of the Duwamish people.
The building is slated for replacement as part of a districtwide effort to create space for a projected increase in student population. SPS Superintendent José Banda had twice postponed plans to move Indian Heritage to Northgate Middle College based on strong opposition from community members, some of whom rallied and testified at a May 15 school board meeting.
They demanded that Indian Heritage be temporarily relocated to its own distinct site, so it could be rejuvinated as a stand-alone program. After meetings with district officials, many were feeling hopeful.
Since then, the district has arranged for Lincoln High School, which has two gymnasiums, to serve as a temporary community gathering space, and Banda has reached an agreement with Morrison to preserve the murals.
The murals and the community events, however, will live on without Indian Heritage for the time being. Harlan said he’s disappointed, but not surprised.
“I hate to say it, but it really does fit a pattern of promises, and then not enough resources to make it work,” he said. “It often comes down to, ‘Well, we wanted to.’”
New hope for a new Heritage
Even with the program’s demise, community members believe a better program can rise from the ruins.
Mike Tulee, SPS Indian education program manager from ’94 to 2004, said it would take robust pressure from the community, specifically parents, and visionary leadership from both within the district and outside groups.
If all these elements come together with a solid mission and voice, Tulee said, “That’s going to make the district more inclined to want to get this accomplished. The district works on a numbers basis. It’s always been that way, and I don’t foresee it changing anytime soon.”
An online petition to investigate the elimination of the Indian Heritage Program has garnered around 3,600 signatures, and UNEA officials are also asking that the future Wilson-Pacific Building be renamed after Robert Eaglestaff. They want a comprehensive Native-focused education and culture center — one that harkens to the Indian Heritage of the past — established at the Wilson-Pacific site post-construction.
“Let’s reimagine it,” Sense-Wilson said. “Maybe it could be even better.”
It is unclear how many wishes community members will see fulfilled, but Wippel said that at this point, nothing has been ruled out.
Whether plans for a new program come together next month or 10 years from now, Wahchumwah won’t reap the benefits. Even though she got a taste of what Indian Heritage used to be, she still feels like she showed up too late.
“I wish I was there years ago, I really do,” she said. “It would’ve been priceless, to be honest.”
But Wahchumwah doesn’t dwell. When she talks about going into a program at Shoreline Community College to study writing, her eyes light up, and it is clear she is looking toward the future.
Sense-Wilson says the community will do the same.
“We’re going to keep pushing,” she said. “As much as they resist, we’re going to continue our vision of what needs to happen for our kids to [stay] successful. It’s a step back, but I don’t see anyone that’s been on this journey and this mission giving up.”