Wisdom of the Elders (WotE) in Portland, Oregon, a long-time partner of Running Strong for American Indian Youth®, “records and preserves traditional cultural values, oral history, prophesy and other messages of guidance from indigenous elders in order to regenerate the greatness of culture among today’s and future generations of Native peoples.”
“As First Peoples, we are humbled by the wisdom of our elders and the deep connection they share with the Great Spirit, the world of nature and family,” WotE states on its website. “We regard our elders as rapidly vanishing, irreplaceable keepers of oral history, tradition and environment.
“Values they extol represent an ancient legacy of knowledge which has become endangered as many disappearing species in our fragile ecosystem.”
WotE was founded in 1993 by the late Martin High Bear, a Lakota medicine man and spiritual leader, and Rose High Bear, Deg Hit’an Dine (Alaskan Athabascan), who continues to carry on its mission today.
Over the decades, WotE has produced three series of public radio programs, Wisdom of the Elders Radio, and developed educational curriculum for Oregon’s schools, including lesson plans in social studies, language arts, environmental science and arts (storytelling, traditional arts and music) in accordance with Oregon’s Educational Standards.
In 2005, WotE formed the Northwest Indian Storytellers Association and holds an annual Northwest Indian Storytellers Festival and tribal storytelling workshops in Portland, along with apprenticeship projects for emerging tribal storytellers.
In addition, WotE has recorded and preserved more than 250 Native elders and storytellers, along with other cultural artists, to share their messages and rich cultural values with younger generations.
The Discovering Yidong Xinag (“The Old Wisdom” in the Athabascan language) project is a Native youth leadership initiative developed by WotE to provide “Native youth and families in the greater Portland area with hands-on outdoor conservation and restoration service learning activities.”
Yidong Xinag projects and activities “focus upon regional environmental and climate issues and include WotE’s Native Saturday Science Academies, Summer Field Science Camps, film screenings, Native peer mentorships and Wisdom Gardens.”
“Despite hardships, Native families and communities are flourishing,” states Executive Director Teresa Montana. “This resilience speaks to many years of survival and sustainability of Native peoples.
“Because youth and children are cherished in Native communities, it is imperative to engage them in educational and cultural programs that strengthen protectant factors, reduce risk factors and build stronger connections among families and community.
“This support will help to increase capacity of students to engage in school and achieve academically so they can successfully accomplish college and career pathways,” she said.
From 2016- 2018, WotE’s Discovering Yidong Xinag team worked with 75 Native American high school students, co-teaching in partnership with their ecology teacher and working in AVID (an all-digital technology for capturing, creating, editing and distributing digital media) career-preparation classrooms to produce a video featuring students who are close to graduation.
“We show our film clips and tell Native American stories that demonstrate respect and other traditional cultural values through stories about traditional First Foods (water, salmon, deer and elk, roots and berries, etc.,” said Teresa. “As a result the students are discovering that there are traditional First Foods that are threatened or endangered and have completed a final report on a food from their own reservation community.
“They are studying how the food is gathered and used, why it is threatened and how it can be restored,” she added. “The students have shown great interests in our films so we feel we have great potential to engage them more deeply in school and increase their academic achievement and career pathways.”
The close relationship between WotE and Running Strong was further strengthened last year as Kunu Bearchum (Northern Cheyenne), a WotE staff member, was selected as a Running Strong Dreamstarter.
Kunu’s dream is entitled “The Science of Nutrition and First Foods: Cultivating Health through Traditional Food Knowledge” and with his $10,000 Dreamstarter grant he used nutrition science to highlight the health benefits of First Foods in conjunction with Traditional Ecological Knowledge.
“My plan is to lead a group of Native youth on a summer science expedition over a week out in nature to find and catalogue First Foods from around the Portland area,” he stated in his Dreamstarter application. “Through cataloguing the First Foods we will foster mathematical learning by have the youth add the content of specific nutrition and vitamins and multiply how many servings they would need to complete a healthy meal.
“I do not know of a summer science program directed at middle school-aged youth,” he told us. “With my Dreamstarter idea I would like to provide this much needed STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) fortifying summer camp.”
Among those who have benefited from WotE programs is a boy who suffers from depression and was unable to attend school because of mental health issues, however after taking part in WotE activities and programs, he is now more outgoing and positive.
“He had very little awareness of his tribal heritage until he became involved with our group,” we were told. “Now he wants to learn his tribe’s history and stories.”
Rose, who served as Executive Director for 25 years and remains on the board as an ex-officio member, remains committed as ever to strengthening WotE in its mission “to strive to correct misconceptions, end prejudice and demonstrate how Indian culture has and continues to enrich our world.”
“We are grateful for the support provided by Running Strong for American Indian Youth® for these past years,” Rose stated. “Thank you for your support of our Native staff.”