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Youth camp bridges new ideas with traditional Native American culture

Olabisi Adesanya, right, graduate student at WSU’s Department of Apparel, Merchandising, Design and Textiles assists a chaperone with a sewing project, as part of the STEM camp for Native American youth aimed at bridging science and tech concepts with indigenous culture.

Helping more than 30 youths from three Northwest Native American tribes build new creative skills while connecting with their traditional culture and language, graduate students at Washington State University’s Department of Apparel, Merchandising, Design and Textiles assisted at this year’s first WSU Culturally Responsive Indigenous Science (CRIS) Camp.

Hosted in June by the WSU College of Education, CRIS camp is part of a National Science Foundation-funded effort at WSU to help young people from tribes across the Northwest explore science, technology and sustainability through their own culture and language.

In this first WSU-hosted camp, nearly 40 boys and girls, ages 11-12, from the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation of northeastern Washington, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe from northern Idaho, and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs from central Oregon, learned about STEM topics, studied traditional languages, tested water quality in nearby Missouri Flats creek, and took part in fitness and team-building activities.

On the final night of the camp, June 26, youth took part in a feast at the Elson S. Floyd Cultural Center.

Helping students make their own traditional garments—ribbon skirts, shirts and vests—to wear for the feast, AMDT graduate students Olabisi Adesanya and Lindsay McCoy worked alongside children and tribal instructors in AMDT’s sewing lab.

Girl holding up piece of fabric with ribbon sewn on.Ribbon fashions were widely shared and are now widespread in Native American cultures, explained instructor Matilda Wildshoe, a Spokane tribal member.

“Each ribbon and each print is significant to the person who makes it,” Wildshoe said. “Each color has a meaning,” from the four directions to personal aspirations. A yellow ribbon, for example, signals an interest in learning about tribal language.

“When we wear them at our gatherings, these clothes are like our prayers,” Wildshoe added.

Thanks to Adesanya and McCoy’s assistance, every student successfully made a skirt or vest for the ceremonial evening dinner.

“I’m glad I was able to use my skills to help children create attire for their feast,” Adesanya said.

Boy, left, and adult helper, right, unfurl a ribbon above a craft table.
Matilda Wildshoe, right, helps a CRIS camper put together his ribbon vest for a traditional feast at the Washington State University-hosted camp.

“Assisting Matilda Wildshoe and the other staff was especially meaningful, because I knew that being able to hold this workshop was very significant and special,” added McCoy.

Children tend to perceive clothing as purchased goods, rather than something which can be made, commented McCoy. Social media and television often depict sewing as a stereotypical activity performed by older people.

But clothing and fashion are important aspects of our existence, due to their protective and aesthetic properties, and their cultural, religious and historical significance.

“This activity gave students a new perspective and perhaps a chance to break down some of the less positive stereotypes about making clothing,” McCoy said. “I not only see creativity in selecting what they believe in, I hope it helps them feel more connected to their culture.”

• Learn more about apparel design at WSU here.

• Learn more about WSU efforts to increase indigenous STEM engagement here.