An otter seen on a trail
camera as part of an environmental science course at the Yakama
Nation Tribal School. With the coronavirus pandemic, students
still monitored the area of study near Highway 97 in Toppenish
Jordan Ashue didn't think he'd be spending his spring freshman
year watching otters on a computer screen.
"I was usually stuck in my room for hours at a time trying to record
animals," Ashue says. "One time, one video was so long I ended up
having to sit there for almost the entire day."
When the pandemic hit, he'd signed up for an environmental science
class at the Yakama Nation Tribal School in Toppenish. It's a new,
grant-funded course that also weaves in traditional knowledge. Instructors
hope it will encourage more tribal students to work in the Yakama
Nation's Natural Resources department or another related field.
Now that students couldn't gather to study the ecosystems around
them, the instructors had to pivot quickly. With the help of a former
student, they set up trail cameras to help the class monitor wildlife.
That's how Ashue, 15, found himself sitting in his room, hours
on end, counting otters and beavers and feral cats. For him, the
distance learning was actually pretty cool.
"I think it's a lot easier because a lot of things are at your
fingertips," he says.
The nine trail cams monitored a small patch of urban forest surrounding
a pond. "We'll generously call it a pond," jokes Jessica Black,
who also runs Heritage University's EnvironMentors program.
The site is situated on a corner just across Highway 97 from the
They thought they'd be lucky enough to capture some wildlife. (The
pond had previously been home to two, long-gone beavers. The female
was killed by passing cars, and the male caused a ruckus at Toppenish
High School a few years ago when he wandered over to the fields,
The Yakama Nation Tribal
School in Toppenish has students in 8th through 12th grades.
Courtesy of YNTS
But, they didn't know how lucky they'd get.
"Shocking and I do mean shocking to everybody there's
a lot of critters there," Black says.
"So exciting," chimes in instructor Stephanie Cowherd, who works
with the Portland-based non-profit
The students and instructors had walked around the site just before
everything closed down. That's when Black spotted some wood shavings
a telltale sign of beavers.
"I was like, 'Don't those wood shavings look kind of fresh?' We
were like, 'No, (the beavers) were killed long ago. No.' And then,
there they were. Everybody has just gotten so excited. Everybody.
The kids. Us," Black laughs.
It's good news for the Yakama Nation tribal council, too, she says.
There's a lot of interest in using beavers to restore streams and
floodplains, Black says.
Those sorts of traditional teachings aren't always available in
public STEM education. Cowherd, who is a San Carlos Apache tribe
member, says the first time she had a teacher of color was in her
high school calculus class junior year.
"I always knew it was different where I was growing up. I was this
brown native kid, and the only other native kid at the school was
my sister," Cowherd says. "If I had seen other native educators,
I would have been like, 'Oh, cool. I can do that.' They're like
me. They get it."
It's different at the Yakama Nation Tribal School, but the students
say this was inspiring to learn from so many mentors and instructors
in different scientific fields.
Student mentors from Heritage University also helped as a part
of its EnvironMentors program. The class consisted of intergenerational
mentors, Black says. Those running the class mentored Heritage University
students, who in turn guided the high school students with their
final research projects. The high school students say those lessons
"I don't know if I've ever seen more Native educators and
especially Yakama educators and mentors in the same room,
at least in my professional experience," Cowherd says.
An otter on a trail camera
underneath Highway 97 in Toppenish is just one of the animals
and creatures Yakama Nation Tribal School students monitored.
Historically, the Yakama Nation Tribal School was a school "of
last resort," says principal Adam Strom, where students came after
they could no longer attend other area schools. That's changing.
He says courses like this are a big reason why.
"(This class provided) engagement to meet the students and their
needs and relevance in their education. I thought it provided the
opportunity when we talk about career pathways for Native Americans,"
Numerous studies have shown there is a large achievement
gap for Native American students. In Washington's
most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress report
from 2015, Native American and Alaska Native students had an
average science score in eighth grade that was 34 percentage points
lower than white students.
the 2018-2019 school year, 24% of Native American and Alaska
Native students who took state science tests received a score high
enough to meet standards for their grade level. That compares to
54.4% of white students.
Strom is hoping to close that achievement gap for students who
attend the Yakama Nation Tribal School.
"We would like to push higher learning. We would like to push college,
trade school, whatever the case may be. At the same time, we have
Yakama Nation forestry. We have Yakama Nation Fisheries. We have
Yakama Nation wildlife," Strom says.
Those technician spots are often filled by people who aren't Yakama
Nation members. Instructor Jessica Black hopes classes like this
gets students interested in filling those positions.
"This is also driven by needs and statistics, that the tribal workforce
needs to be developed," Black says. "To get a more highly skilled
tribal workforce, you have to put in the time and the effort and
build, with programs like these."
The experimental class was co-funded by Ecotrust and Heritage University's
Center for Indigenous Health, Culture & the Environment. Black
says she isn't sure what funding looks like for next fall, but the
instructors say they would like to continue a similar class, if
Student Jonas ScabbyRobe says he wants to keep learning about nature,
even after he's wrapped up his freshman year.
Although ScabbyRobe, 16, wants to become a doctor one day, he says
the mentorship this class provided was invaluable. It was a necessary
check-in and time to socialize with the mentors and students.
"It felt like home," he says. "It made me feel happy and joyful
all the time. I wanted to be like (the instructors): happy and outgoing."
They wouldn't let students fail, he says. And they got him to think
in different ways, about nature and the animals he studied in Toppenish.
"I believe I will take most of the knowledge that they've taught
me, he says. "And I will most likely try to spread that knowledge
to give people an idea on what's going on."