About a dozen students silently sit in a semicircle around a Makah woman, as she shows them how to make a cedar bracelet. Students mimic her as she holds several foot-long strands of cedar bark strung out from her mouth to her hands. And they listen eagerly as she tells them how to simultaneously twist and braid the bark, while her teeth stay clenched on one end. She reminds them to keep the cedar damp and the material fills the room with a musky, sweet aroma.
The students will learn that the Makah can make just about anything out of cedar and have for hundreds if not thousands of years, from a bracelet to a canoe that’s able to navigate the ocean.
This is just one of the activities the PLU students learn at the Makah Indian Reservation on Neah Bay on the Washington coast. This January, 15 students spent 12 days with anthropology professor Dr. Dave Huelsbeck immersing themselves in the unique American Indian Culture.
“Books can only get you so far,” said Alyssa Marie Adams, a junior on the trip. “This is probably one of the best experiences I’ve had.”
It’s a view repeated by many of her peers and whether they knew it at the time or not, it’s why many of them signed up for Huelsbeck’s J-term anthropology course, which is in its 15th year.
For many of the students who go on the Neah Bay J-term program, their reasons for signing up are similar – “I’m interested in anthropology,” “I wanted to learn about a place I knew of but didn’t know about,” “I’d been here a long time ago,” or “I heard this is the most underrated J-term trip.”
Senior Eden Marsicek couldn’t agree more with the last statement.
“It is,” she says plainly.
Once the students arrive they are nervous about what is to come. But the Makah calm them quickly with the epitome of “with open arms.”
The Makah have an open and strong sense of community. Family gatherings are like Thanksgiving, Adams said, but there is no awkwardness between generations.
“Everyone’s always looking out for each other and helping anyway they can,” said freshman Alicia Zachary-Erickson.
“That’s hard to say about any community,” Freshman Ted Charles said. “It’s ridiculous how much more hospitable people are here.”
The students were warmly taken into community members’ homes for meals, stories and more.
“It was hard for me to comprehend how nice everyone is,” Charles said. “I’m going to miss it.”
The stories have been a new perspective on what they thought they knew about American Indians, Marsicek said. They learned about the Makah perspective on everything from drugs and alcohol abuse on the reservation to whaling.
“It’s not just hearing a third person account either,” Charles said.
When asked about their culture, they had no problem speaking honestly and frankly, Marsicek said.
“It really gives me a much better idea,” she said. “I would not have gotten that if I had been in Tacoma instead of here (Neah Bay). The people we’ve talked to are incredible.”
Marsicek recalled how when the group first arrived at Neah Bay, they went on a self-guided tour of the museum. It was interesting, but a canoe was still just a canoe. Later, they took a tour of the museum with a member of the Makah and a canoe felt like something more than it did before.
“You look at a canoe and it is a canoe. You’ve seen it before,” she said. “But then you look at a canoe with a Makah who has so much pride for their culture and you see it differently. What was a 30-second visit turns into a 25-minute story.
They talk about what it took to make the whaling vessel and what it means to hunt an animal that they revere, respect and was so important for their people’s survival for many years.
“And they want to share and they will keep sharing as long as you give them an ear.”
As open and honest as the Makah are, the students were well prepared to take a chance and ask questions without feeling timid.
Class time before the students went to Neah Bay was dedicated to what Huelsbeck calls “Making it safe to take the risk.”
“It’s (the course) really about providing an opportunity to see what really is happening,” he said.
But they need to be prepared because there isn’t much down time for the 12 days at Neah Bay.
“We keep them really busy,” Huelsbeck said.
If they aren’t learning how to make anything and everything out of cedar, the students are helping out on service projects, learning about the Makah through stories and artifacts, and learning about the Makah heritage and culture in whatever way they can.
“A lifetime isn’t enough time to learn everything,” Huelsbeck said. “But for the first dose, 12 days is pretty good.”
For Janine Bowechop, she hopes what these students learn stays with them and they see the Makah through new perspectives. As executive director of the Makah Cultural and Research Center, Bowechop works with Theresa Parker in developing the curriculum at Neah Bay. Parker is also the one who teaches the students how to make things like cedar bracelets.
“I guess I hope they take away an understanding of how important it is to us to preserve our culture and we do that in many ways,” she said.
Although the PLU program is helpful for outsiders, many of the Makah’s programs are geared toward teaching their own community.
From the tangible, like basket weaving, to in-depth storytelling that teaches a lesson, is a lesson unto itself and expresses the rich heritage of the Makah people.
That hope is what Huelsbeck tries to teach in the way of voice and authority.
Every individual has a voice or an authority that is uniquely based on their background. A big part of the study away program is for the students to learn how to recognize what created those varied perspectives – the people they met and the stories they heard helped guide that.
“It’s a real important principal in anthropology,” he said. “There is no one Makah perspective any more than there is one American perspective.”
Huelsbeck’s course has created a unique relationship between himself the tribe and PLU. Beginning as a graduate student in the late 1970s, Huelsbeck worked on what would become one of the most profound archeological Native American discoveries ever – Ozette.
The centuries old Native American village on the Washington Coast was remarkably preserved by a landslide between 400 and 500 years ago. Time stood still at the village, in many ways like the volcanic preserved site of Pompeii.
“The landslide created an air tight seal,” Huelsbeck said. “It even preserved plant materials. The whole bit was preserved.”
After a decade excavation of the Ozette site more than 50,000 artifacts were found, 20,000 structural components and a million animal bones and shells.
“Things that were made hundreds of years ago, look like they were made decades ago,” Bowechop said. “Ozette is unique because you get that moment preserved.”
The MCRC is the location of a museum that houses many of the Ozette pieces. The center is the first prominent building seen coming into town from the East. In front of it are towering totem poles, but the real treasure are inside. The light is dim, but it shines brightest on the artifacts. The ones in glass casings are old and kept untouched, but the museum also features work done by Makah in recent years. Those pieces bring to life the ancient artifacts.
“This museum is literally one of the best small museums in the world,” Huelsbeck said.
And on occasion the tribe has leant their museum pieces for discovery at other museums around the world, but any curious spectators’ best bet of discovering one of Washington’s original people is by visiting the cultural and research center itself.
By far it is the most extensive Native American find – ever. And the Makah Tribe has been a leader in cataloging the find and using the found contents to open up the doors of preserving and rediscovering the Makah’s cultural heritage.
Although this find was definitely an important discovery it in no way saved the culture of the Makah.
“Actually it’s the other way around,” Huelsbeck said.
Early on the Makah people decided to take an active part in using the knowledge and stories they knew as a way to help explain the artifacts that were found, from what they were to the names of items.
They weren’t interested in keeping the knowledge to themselves either, Huelsbeck said. They have become leaders in educating people about the Makah.
In fact, saying the Neah Bay trip is Huelsbeck’s course alone is not correct. The course work at the Makah Reservation is now lead by Bowechop. When the Neah Bay J-term course first started more than a decade ago, the tribe played an active role in developing the course with Huelsbeck.
“They are very good at educating people,” Huelsbeck said.
Bowechop said the work the tribe does with the PLU students is welcomed every year, with people like Huelsbeck having worked with the Makah for so long a familiar trust has been established.
“The community comes to expect good things form the students,” Bowechop said. “We have a very friendly and open community.”
They are prepared and eager to be part of the community before they come to Neah Bay, she said. What the Makah have to offer educationally isn’t only a pleasure, but it’s needed to create cultural understanding.
“We realize we create a more enlightened audience when we share our heritage,” Bowechop said.