Photo depicting Ixtli Salinas-White Hawk in a traditional Aztec Dance headdress carrying a clay pot with burning flame.

Highline Indigenous Voices Celebration Features Art, Education, Stories

by Patheresa Wells

Highline Public Schools Native Education Program will host an Indigenous Voices Celebration on Saturday, Nov. 27, 1–7 p.m., highlighting and honoring the work done by Indigenous earth/water protectors and First Nations food sovereignty leaders. The event will include viewings of two films, AWAKE: A Dream from Standing Rock and GATHER, as well as discussion about issues of importance to Indigenous communities — including the sacred work of water and land protectors — and sharings from Highline Native Education

Highline’s Native Education Program is a legacy program established in 1974 with the passing of the Indian Education Act. The program was started as a way to address the culturally related needs of American Indian and Alaska Native students. Since its inception, the program has had its own history of growth, but in 2013 it was relaunched with, as program manager Sara Ortiz says, a desire to be “visionary in our approach to native or Indian education … to include as many artists, as many culture keepers, scholars, elders, media makers, [and] language teachers [as possible].”

Students who are served by the program come from many tribal nations located here in Washington State and across the country, including Indigenous students from Canada. Ortiz says this allows them to benefit from “gathering lots of thought, different practices, [and] different cultural traditions” into their offerings whether they are a learning space, a celebration like the event planned for Saturday, or “a Family Forum — a meeting where we bring our families and students and educators together.” 

Because education is so key to the program’s mission, facilitators say all are welcome, but in order to focus on supporting their community, the program centers enrolled students and any Indigenous students who might want to participate, along with participating students’ families.

The partnership between the Native Education Program and Highline Heritage Museum works to center Indigenous voices while bringing their stories to the community. Ortiz says with the passage of Senate Bill 5433 there was a change in the language regarding the Since Time Immemorial: Tribal Sovereignty in Washington State curriculum; instead of simply encouraging that the curriculum be taught in Washington State common schools, it is now required. 

“That was a huge change …” Ortiz said. “[D]istricts got more serious about teaching about tribal histories, tribal sovereignty, tribal peoples, and we started looking around to … multiple partners who might be able to help us with the implementation process, internally and also externally, and Highline [Heritage Museum] was a perfect fit.” She says the museum has “worked so hard to tell the stories of our community,” a process and partnership that entailed reaching out “to our tribal partners, reaching out to tribal historians, elders, culture keepers who would come and be a part of the curation of the tribal peoples portion of the museum.”

The culture, history, and traditions of tribal peoples is varied, although there are common threads. One of these is the work done by Indigenous earth/water protectors. This work, Ortiz observes, has been part of “the traditions of many, many tribes where we — since time immemorial, pre-contact, pre-settler arrival — we were the stewards, the caretakers of all of our natural resources because that was our life way.” And the relationship to land and water is one that is taken actively, with great regard. For instance in the film Awake, media makers like Myron Dewey incorporate their stewardship as earth/water protectors through their art. The film, which captures the story of Native-led defiance at Standing Rock, brings light to those Ortiz says some people might refer to as protesters but her community refers to as protectors. She says that they are “tending to that relationship with our ecology, with one another, our culture, and our community. And it is about protection. It’s about protecting our life ways, protecting our relatives, and ensuring that the gifts that we have from the earth and from the water — that they continue and that our children or grandchildren, great grandchildren, continue to live in that reciprocal and responsible way as relatives with our land and with our water.” 

This responsibility extends to the ways in which the land and water provide sustenance, as well. GATHER, the second film that will be shown, is focused on the increasing movement amongst Indigenous peoples to reclaim their spiritual, political, and cultural identities through food sovereignty, which according to the U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance is “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.” The connections to food sovereignty for Indigenous peoples have diminished while people have struggled with the trauma of centuries of genocide. Ortiz says that in order to reconnect, Native chefs, growers, and teachers throughout the country and world “are cultivating both the Indigenous plants and medicines for survival purposes but also cultivating understandings around the cultural meanings of … our traditional plants and ways of gathering, hunting, harvesting, and being on the land.”

Centering and celebrating Indigenous voices is the goal of the event being held Saturday, Nov. 27. While those doing the work to educate, protect, and preserve these traditions and ways of life open space for all in the community to learn, it is important to recognize ways allyship can center these voices. 

Ortiz invites readers to come to the event (more information below) but notes that there are other ways to help attain the goals of the program, including seeking out education and supporting Native artists. 

“Every citizen in Washington State can really invest and dig deeply into their own development [to] learn things that most people weren’t taught in K–12, or college, or grad studies,” Ortiz said. “But this information is widely available now.” 

Ortiz offered a variety of resources (listed at the end of this article) that she encourages readers to explore in order to hear from “a confluence of voices and perspectives of everything from tribal leaders and historians to state education leaders — those who … their whole world is making sure that the stories, the cultural memory, the traditional practices of the tribes of this land, that they carry forward, that they’re protected and acknowledged.” She cautions those who seek to be allies to not just open their wallets but to find other ways to provide support. Donating funds is helpful, but “there’s so much other work …” she says, “… acting and doing that protection work that is in relationship with the community, with tribal leaders, with tribal people, and staying accountable to one another, keeping each other accountable when it comes to honoring … our relationship with one another.” 

Ortiz says a great way to honor that connection is to support Native artists by building relationship with the art they create. “It’s not just a means of making income. It is how we feed our families, often, but it’s also a way of carrying our culture and our traditional knowledge and traditional practices forward into the coming generations.” 

Educational Resources:

Native Artists:

More information about the event being held Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021, can be found on the Highline Native Education Facebook Page. The event will have limited capacity, and proof of vaccination is required. To RSVP email

Patheresa Wells is a Queer poet, writer, and storyteller who lives in SeaTac, Washington. Born to a Black mother and Persian father, her experiences as a multicultural child shaped her desire to advocate for and amplify her community. She currently attends Highline College in Des Moines. Follow her on Twitter @PatheresaWells.

📸 Featured Image: Ixtli Salinas-White Hawk performs the only ceremony the Aztec culture is allowed to share with those outside the culture, during the fifth annual celebration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day at Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center in Seattle, Washington, on Oct. 8, 2018. She belongs to Tloke Nahuake-tlayolohtli, a traditional Aztec Dance family group. (Photo: Carolyn Bick)

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