OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

Math, science and rites of passage

10/01/1997

ASHLAND - With the help of the Diversity Internship Program at Oregon State University, Native American youth in Oregon are now mixing a little math, science, and engineering with their more traditional rites of tribal passage.

At "Konaway Nika Tillicum," Indian students in grades five through eight participate in a week-long encampment during late summer in Ashland, Ore., where they are simultaneously exposed to traditional cultural practices and aspects of higher education.

Judith Vergun, director of this and the Native Americans in Marine and Space Sciences Program at OSU, says such events are part of a general "awakening" among Native Americans.

"This event, and others like it that we co-sponsor with the Oregon tribes, all have a similar purpose," Vergun said, "which is to increase the self-reliance and self-esteem of Native American youth."

Konaway Nika Tillicum means "all my relations" in Chinook, and in the program students learn how to sustain their traditional culture while participating in the outside world.

Native American college students in her program at OSU assist as interns funded by the National Science Foundation and NASA, Vergun said. As counselors and teachers participating in programs like Konaway Nika Tillicum, they serve as role models for the younger students and make a valuable contribution to their communities, she said.

Konaway Nika Tillicum, a collaboration of OSU and the nine federally-recognized tribes in Oregon, is designed and managed by tribal educators, professionals and elders, many of whom are involved directly. At age 87, Agnes Baker Pilgrim is the oldest living elder in the Tekelma Band of the Rogue River Indians. She developed, named, and participates every year.

"This is a wonderful event for youth when they are in the time of life when they need guidance," Pilgrim said, "and maybe are not listening to mom and dad anymore. The academics and traditional cultural practices in combination give the students a sense of who they are, and how they fit and belong in today's world.

"Elders give encouragement and love and are sincere and truly care about the children. The children receive the love and give it back. They are all our children, and we will always be here for them, and we make this strong connection at this camp.

"We teach them to set attainable goals and that there are no orphans in the Indian world. We are all unique and special and have a mother called Mother Earth."

The idea of a Native American Youth Academy, which became Konaway Nika Tillicum in 1995, had been discussed since the late 1970s among Native American students and faculty at the University of Oregon, Rogue Community College, and Southern Oregon University.

This year, 35 students in the week-long program took short courses in ecology, biology, mathematics, and performance arts, and were instructed in the significance of traditional crafts and practices. Activities ranged from field trips to workshops to individual counseling by elders.

Integration of traditional and modern world approaches is the rule. For example, this year small groups of students worked all week on watershed issues in an ecology workshop. They examined a watershed and riparian zones first hand and planned a self-supporting tribal community, which included a riverside factory, healthy fish and wildlife, and rigorous testing of the drinking water. In the lab, they learned to recognize the microscopic plants and animals that live in natural, healthy stream water.

And from Mark Muktoyuk, an OSU student and tutor, they learned about mathematical probabilities. Muktoyuk, who grew up in Portland, is the son of an Inupiaq Eskimo.

Muktoyuk said his participation at Konaway Nika Tillicum gave him "a feeling that I belonged in my native culture, and that I had a place there as much as I have a place in the culture I was raised in. It was a learning environment where I could receive from different people in the culture that sense of wonder, which my father had been trying to tell me about, bit by bit, over the years."

Robert Owens, an award-winning Shakespearean actor who is Lakota and Cherokee Indian and the founder of Ashland's Theatre Ikcecasa, helped the participants improvise a three-act play during the week they were at camp. The students performed their play outside on the green stage during this year's Ashland Shakespearean Festival.

"The significance of the program for young native people is that they can realize their own identity as natives while learning the skills to survive in a non-native world," Owens said. "Then they can integrate the two worlds into a functional reality for themselves."