Author: Tamar Kupiec
On Monday, October 8, students in the School Overnight Program (SOP) took part in a visit by Tlingit artist, dancer, and teacher Odin Lonning in celebration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day. “There are multiple histories out there,” Sapna Sopori, Director for Education Leadership, explained to the children from Coe Elementary and Westside School who gathered before her in IslandWood’s Great Hall. “The First Nations’ story is not always told in our schools, homes, and history books.”
This was the first such celebration in SOP. But it is part of an intentional effort by IslandWood to ensure native cultures and people are part of the conversations we have with children—about our connection to the natural world and to each other and about the history of our land and communities. “As we are building relationships with native artists and educators and hearing their voices in our Artist-in-Residence and community programs throughout the year, it seems natural to honor a holiday that highlights their history, culture, and presence in our community,” said Jessica Henderson, Arts Coordinator at IslandWood. Henderson directs the Artist-in-Residence program, which brings teaching artists, such as Lonning, from diverse disciplines and cultures to work with SOP students and graduate student instructors.
Indigenous Peoples’ Day was a fitting occasion for the Great Hall, which was designed to resemble a Coast Salish longhouse and honors the life of Vi Hilbert. Hilbert was an elder in the Upper Skagit tribe, a storyteller, and conservationist of the Lushootseed language. On stage behind Lonning was a house post in Hilbert’s image—a grandmother welcoming the children with outstretched arms.
Alternating between Tlingit and English, Lonning began by paying respect to the local Coast Salish tribes. Paying respect to nature and one’s elders, he said, is the foundation of his people’s art, a theme which resonated throughout the evening.
He then acknowledged his mother, who inspired his journey in life when she brought him to a performance of native song and dance. The experience gave the young Odin “goose bumps” and raised questions about his culture that he is still answering today. He is both a teacher and a student, he told his audience of schoolchildren.
As an adult, Lonning taught himself to draw the traditional Tlingit designs. Later he studied painting and finally carving to make the canoe paddles, masks, and totem poles of his people. Dressed in elaborate regalia of his own creation, Lonning dedicated much of his presentation to explaining its designs, whose animals and colors signify and honor his ancestors. His eagle headdress identified his moiety, or descent group. The shark adorning his wool button robe, its body split in two, signified his clan.
But to truly understand “why the art is the way it is” Lonning had to learn the language, the songs and dances. He demonstrated the Canoe Paddle Song with his Orca emblazoned paddle and invited the students to join him. They leapt from their chairs to row their imaginary paddles, flowing slowly and joyfully across the floor to the rhythm of Lonning’s song.
“I respect that you are here at IslandWood learning about nature. Today there cannot be enough learning about nature. I hope to come back to IslandWood,” said Lonning in farewell. The evening concluded with IslandWood staff and teachers dismissing the children to their lodges with a song. “My roots go down, down to the ground…my roots go down.” Lonning softly rapped his drum in accompaniment. For many, this was their first celebration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day.