Past, present come together at Columbia River Gorge Elementary

Washougal third-graders explore early Northwest Coast Native American culture

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Third grade student Dereck Rodriguez Hernandez said he created the river and canoe in front of this plank house to represent the Native Americans' main source of fish and water.

A group of Columbia River Gorge Elementary School third-graders is on the path toward better understanding the Pacific Northwest’s indigenous culture.

In May, the students visited the Lelooska Cultural Center, met with members of the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership and learned about the daily lives of Northwest Coast Native Americans, including members of the Haida, Chinook, Coast Salish and Tillamook tribes.

The lessons were a part of the third-graders’ language arts curriculum, explained Columbia River Gorge teacher Heidi Kleser, and were designed to help students connect modern-day practices to the lives and culture of the region’s first inhabitants.

“Learning about cultures allows us to share in the beauty of what we have in common (and) recognize patterns, as well as develop a respect and honor our differences,” Kleser said. “Students (were) also able to make connections, such as the name of their town, Washougal, and how it’s a Native American word too.”

The third-graders learned that cedar wood was a pivotal resource for Northwest Coast Native Americans, who used the material to construct plank houses, build canoes to catch salmon and even make clothing.

After exploring the natural resources used by Northwest Coast tribes, the students were tasked with engineering their own plank houses, writing a report and presenting their project to the class.

The third-graders created plank house models using everything from sticks they’d found in their own backyard to pieces of real cedar wood.

Many of the students created not only the plank houses, but handmade people, canoes and totem poles.

Third-grader Isabella Streuli said she loved landscaping and building her plank house out of real cedar.

“I learned a lot about Native American culture, and it was really interesting,” Streuli said. “I was excited to learn that they made clothing out of cedar.”

Student Sawyer Brimhall, who said she enjoyed writing her report on the tribes’ use of natural resources, including salmon, cedar and water, incorporated a few interesting facts about the Northwest Coast tribes — that the chief has the bedroom located furthest from the main door and that tribal members collected shells from the ocean — into her own plank house model. Third grade student Mason Taylor said he was surprised to learn that the Native Americans who lived along the Oregon, Washington and British Columbia coasts, dried their fish in smokehouses and also by hanging them from the roofs of their plank houses.

The students also studied the life cycle of salmon, learning about one of the tribes’ main food sources and also incorporating a science lesson into their social studies class.

Kleser said the lesson allowed her students to see how much the indigenous families relied on fishing.

The overall unit covered standards for third-graders in reading, writing, communication, engineering, science and social studies, Kleser added.

“Students (learned) about how cultures use natural resources to provide for their lives,” Kleser said. “They are able to make personal connections — how our current civilizations rely on trade and how different businesses are created to provide services and goods. In their writing portion of the assignment, students were able to make connections with how this cultural group fits into the larger idea of civilizations and make connections.”

The lessons are part of an ongoing push in the early grades to help Columbia River Gorge students understand how their little piece of the planet connects to a much wider world. In first grade, the students studied Egyptian civilizations. In second grade, it was ancient Greece, and in third grade they also have studied ancient Rome.

“All students can (now) articulate similarities and differences between different civilizations,” Kleser said.