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Cultural Awareness: Native students move forward through their past

Klamath Early College of the Redwoods students Kyle Smith (left) and Mason Vanmechlen gather rocks along the shore of the Klamath River Wednesday afternoon as part of a cultural awareness class. The rocks, once gathered, will be used in the construction of a sweathouse the boy's class is building near the mouth of the Klamath River. (The Daily Triplicate/Bryant Anderson).
Klamath Early College of the Redwoods students Kyle Smith (left) and Mason Vanmechlen gather rocks along the shore of the Klamath River Wednesday afternoon as part of a cultural awareness class. The rocks, once gathered, will be used in the construction of a sweathouse the boy's class is building near the mouth of the Klamath River. (The Daily Triplicate/Bryant Anderson).

By Karen Wilkinson

Triplicate staff writer

While girls weave roots into traditional Native baskets and share with one another in a talking circle, boys are gathering rocks for a sweathouse they're building at the mouth of the Klamath River.

"The men's and women's activities are very culturally separate," said Annelia Norris, Klamath River Early College of the Redwoods cultural coordinator and advisor.

Sweathouse building and basket weaving may sound unconventional for high school curriculum, but they actually meet state standards for cultural awareness, personal and social health and even science by preserving the Yurok tradition.

"They're learning to be responsible about the craft," Norris said. "(Weaving) teaches you patience and responsibility."

These activities meet the school's mission to provide innovative, individualized learning that combines cultural traditions with education in a way students find relevant to their lives.

The school, which is on the Yurok Reservation in Klamath, was created as a cooperative effort of the Yurok Tribe, College of the Redwoods and the Del Norte County School District and opened in the fall of 2005.

Every Wednesday in Febru-ary, 20 or so Klamath River Early College of the Redwoods students have connected to Native American roots through these hands-on activities.

Darren Davis, 17, a Karuk Indian, said the boys are learning this building custom "so we can pass it on, so the tradition doesn't die off."

And Davis' role in the sweathouse's creation, which is being built at a Weyhl-Kwel village site for the Yurok Tribe, is significant.

"My nephew's Yurok and that's his sweathouse," he said. "For them to be able to ask me to help them, that's an honor."

The sweathouse is being built from the ground up — from below the ground, actually — and will be used for purification purposes, especially before the August brush dances.

"Before you go you're supposed to be pure and have good thoughts," Eduah Schwenk, 17, noting the house is just for men and the medicine woman.

The sweathouse, which is made of redwood, clay and stones, has been described as a "men's lodge" and is built so no water can enter or exit through the materials.

Schwenk said it hasn't been too tough with the help of a bunch of guys, but digging the pit, gathering the redwood and putting the boards in place hasn't been easy.

And the girls' projects, new to many, can be seen as a metaphor of "weaving our roots," Norris said.

"It's one of the final pieces of our culture for women," Norris said, adding the baskets that are woven so tightly they hold water, are world-renowned.

And the talking circle, which is started off by burning sage and a prayer, provides a safe circle for the girls.

"We address a lot of issues we're not comfortable talking with young men about," Norris said.

"It lets us be open about ourselves," Raven Eldredge, 14, said. "It's peace and quiet because the boys are gone and they can't disrupt us."

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