Jesintel gathers the cultural teachings of nineteen Coast Salish elders for new generations. Collaboration is at the heart of this work by Native-owned and -operated Children of the Setting Sun Productions, who came together with their community to honor the boundless relations of Coast Salish people and their territories.
Jesintel—”to learn and grow together”—characterizes the spirit of the book, which includes photographs and interviews that share powerful experiences and stories. In the excerpts below, elders reflect on identity, education, and the importance of storytelling. Throughout the book, they offer their perspectives on language revitalization, Coast Salish family values and naming practices, salmon, sovereignty, and canoe racing. They also reveal traumatic memories, including of their boarding school experiences and the epidemics that ravished their communities.
Those featured here as well as other participating elders will be honored at the book launch on April 17, 4:30–6:30 pm, at wǝɫǝbʔaltxʷ – Intellectual House. Find more information about upcoming events below.
Elaine Grinell (Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe) on the Importance of Storytelling
I learned storytelling at a young age, but I didn’t utilize it. I thought that was just for me. I thought that was just mine. And I didn’t learn until, oh, I was probably twenty-four or twenty-five when I realized that this was for me to give to someone else too—my whole family, you know. These things seep out. They just seep. Actually, I don’t know whether you realize how much you really do know until pretty late in life, and that it’s important, that I better stick with that, I’m good at that, I’d better continue.
I started in the Port Angeles school district, and now I have carried our stories and songs to Africa, Prague, Bangkok, Japan, and Alaska, way out on Saint Lawrence Island. Africa was fun. I got along really well with the people. They were really interested in Indians. They just really liked the Native Americans. They had thought we were extinct and they were quite surprised when one of us turned up at their hut.
Grandpa Prince would build a fire in the cast-iron woodstove, and those stoves have leaks in them. They’re just little openings and cracks, and the firelight would flicker through. So the three of us—Grandma, Grandpa, and me—would sit there, and he would peel apples, and that flame would hit his face, and it would just flicker, and Grandma would flicker. And I’d watch them, and he would tell stories. I was just, ah . . . mesmerized, totally taken in, and I thought, I have to remember.
Nolan Charles (Musqueam Indian Band) on Salish Identity
Language—it gives you your identity. It’s one. And it’s the resources. Like, we look at the Salish Sea. “Is that our soup bowl? The sea urchins, the octopus, the salmon, the halibut—all those things that we draw from the Salish Sea that sustain us?”
Those nourish us, but it’s also the things like the cedar tree that we use to build our canoes, to build our longhouses. We fashion mats and hats and clothing from cedar and from bulrushes from the mouths of the rivers. Those also provide us with clothing and mats and things like that. It’s all part and parcel. But language is probably the key that gives you your identity, connecting all of these. It will help our little ones prepare themselves for the next battle.
Virginia Cross (Muckleshoot Tribe) on Education
I went to the University of Puget Sound and then got a master’s degree in education at the University of Washington in curriculum and instruction. I started the Virginia Cross Program when I was with the Auburn School District in the 1980s, and it has grown. It’s now known as the Virginia Cross Native American Education Center. When I started the program, we had a lot of kids who had dropped out of school, and we designed the program to serve the cultural, social, and academic needs of teenagers who weren’t in school. The program now supports students from over seventy tribes across a range of areas that are all connected. It’s important for our tribal students and future leaders to learn and share their culture as part of their education. It’s important to share this with non-tribal students and neighboring community members.
I have a lot of hope for the new legislation requiring Washington State public schools to offer a Native Education curriculum. We helped. Our lobbyists worked really hard on that. When it was signed, we went to the signing ceremony. If the public schools follow through and teach what they’re supposed to be teaching—the history of how tribal sovereignty came to be, treaty rights, Native science, opportunities to learn our traditional languages, opportunities to participate in traditional practices—then I think that our kids will have an easier time than we did at school. I worked for the Auburn School District for over twenty years, so I know very well the kinds of history books they approve and are distributed into our school system. Nothing has to do with tribal history or the plants you might gather. They don’t mention anything about Muckleshoot tribe or hardly any Indian tribe. They don’t recognize that we have our own constitution and bylaws—they only study the US Constitution. They also celebrated holidays that we don’t honor—Columbus Day, now Indigenous Peoples’ Day. I don’t think they have treated our kids well for their special needs.
I’m thinking back to when I was in school. I graduated in 1957, and at that time I was the only Muckleshoot graduate. My sister two years before me was the only Muckleshoot graduate. We would start in kindergarten with ten or fifteen tribal people, and by the time we were out of the eighth or ninth grade, they would all be gone. It just didn’t serve our kids or our people well.
I think there was just so much prejudice. There were very few of us who were in high school at that time, probably not more than ten of us in the whole school of thousands of kids. Our dad wanted us to be in school, that’s why we were there.
I think it’s the education department that has really progressed, mostly because that’s where our primary interest has been. We now have a tribal school and a Lushootseed language program with a program director, where we teach and qualify five full-time language teachers every year, who then go out to teach. And now we have hired another five more. Hopefully we’ll end up with everybody speaking Lushootseed language. And hopefully this work will continue.
April 17, 4:30–6:30 pm, Book Launch at wǝɫǝbʔaltxʷ – Intellectual House (UW Seattle): The program will feature selected readings from Jesintel and an evocative drumming ceremony honoring elders in attendance whose narratives are presented in the book: Steve and Gwen Point, Gene Harry, Nolan Charles, Elaine Grinell, Virginia Cross, Nancy Shippentower, and Jewell James. Books will be available for purchase from the University Book Store.
April 28, 7:00–8:00 pm, Village Books (Bellingham): Join Darrell Hillaire, executive director of Children of the Setting Sun Productions, and editors of the book for a reading and book signing in the Village Books Readings Gallery. This event is part of the Nature of Writing series, a partnership between Village Books and the North Cascades Institute.