By Kailey Fisicaro

The Bulletin

A Madras High School Native American language class has grown over the years, and soon, curriculum in more classes will teach the culture too.

Five years ago, Madras High School offered an elective class in which students learned three Native American languages spoken by the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs. The class took place two days a week. Today, that class has expanded to four days a week, and Madras High, along with the rest of Jefferson County School District, is gearing up to incorporate more Native American cultural curriculum, via a state plan.

Madras High Principal Mark Neffendorf said it has been tough to find a full-time teacher for the course. The way it works now, a Madras High teacher is assigned the class, but three guest instructors take turns coming in to teach the three languages spoken on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation: Numu, of the Paiute; Kiksht, the Wasco language; and Ichishkiin of the Warm Springs tribe.

“They send up a teacher every day,” Neffendorf said. The instructors come from the Culture & Heritage Language Department.

At the beginning of the school year, students in the class were learning the three languages at once. In February, they requested that the rest of the lessons be separated to make it less confusing. Arlita Rhoan, 78, is the lead language instructor with the department. She’s teaching the kids Ichishkiin now.

Rhoan said of the 21 enrolled, about 17 kids are there each day of the class, held every day but Thursday.

Rhoan said she’s one of 19 Ichishkiin speakers. The other languages have even fewer speakers. When she was growing up, she explained, it was much easier for her to be immersed.

“They just have never spoken the language, never have really heard the language spoken,” Rhoan said of the students, unless they go to the longhouse, which she described as “the worship place.”

Rhoan said since the language is unfamiliar to the students, it can be exciting for them, but like any class some students just aren’t interested. Although the course is open to all students, the majority who enroll each year are from Warm Springs, she said.

“I was able to see our behavior, our cultural ways,” Rhoan said. “I was able to speak to young, old and really old. And today, they don’t have that.”

Rhoan said she notices many young people aren’t interested in their Native American culture until they’re in their 20s.

“They don’t realize today that Indian identity is important to them,” Rhoan said.

But she said when a presenter visited the class recently to discuss how spiritual their way of life used to be, the teens took notice.

“They were calm and quiet,” Rhoan said. “It kind of opened their sensitivity in listening so it was something very different that was a part of them.”

Pam Cardenas, also with the Culture & Heritage Language Department, teaches Kiksht, which will be the last unit of the school year, since the Madras High class switched to focusing on one language at a time.

Cardenas said that about 10 years ago she wanted to learn the language. The women who taught her brought her along to lessons they taught with youngsters, presenting her as another instructor.

“The kids didn’t know I was learning along with them,” Cardenas said. Now, along with teaching at Madras High and Warm Springs Elementary, Cardenas is helping four seventh- and eighth-grade boys prepare for a language bowl in Pendleton in May.

The district, too, is working to incorporate culturally relevant curriculum for all ages, under an updated state plan to help native students. The plan was developed 20 years ago, but the Oregon State Board of Education approved the revised plan in 2015.

Officials from the state’s nine federally recognized tribes, including a representative from the Confederate Tribes of Warm Springs, worked on the update. Some goals of the plan include increasing native students’ attendance, improving their readiness for higher education and jobs and recruiting more native teachers in districts with large native student populations. The state plan also requires districts add curriculum relevant to native students.

Melinda Boyle, curriculum director for the school district, said the standards in the plan aren’t specific; it’s more like a road map. Her job now, with help from teachers, is to figure out curriculum that aligns with the Oregon Department of Education, Common Core (the national standards) and the Oregon and American Indian state plan.

Last week, Boyle led teachers in a workshop on new curriculum. The district is small enough for all teachers, K-12, who teach social studies or history to participate. There will be more workshops over the next few months, Boyle said, explaining adapted curriculum will be implemented in the fall for sixth- through 12th-grade students. Elementary teachers likely won’t begin using it until fall 2017.

Boyle said by integrating Native American culture into curriculum, the district’s goal is to engage all of its students.

— Reporter: 541-383-0325,