Sacred teachings

Michael Pavel '81 labors to undo a century of cultural genocide and resurrect the language and life of the Salish peoples.

By Sandra Sarr

On a cool October evening people from tribal communities statewide fill the Skokomish longhouse for the First Food ceremony, one in a series of seasonal rituals and celebrations that form the basis of the Puget Sound Salish tribes' traditional way of life.

Michael Pavel '81 walks the floor, peripherally aware of the young people serving elders and guests plates of food gathered, caught, and prepared in the way of their ancestors. The smell of alder-roasted salmon, baked clams, oysters, camas root, breads, and other freshly prepared foods wafts through the cedar-planked longhouse that is lined with multigenerational families enjoying one another's company.

Pavel disappears behind a wall of men and women drumming and singing. These revelers wear cedar bark, shells, and beads similar to the adornments of those who preceded them by hundreds of years.

The drumming grows louder and faster, and Pavel crouches behind a woven shroud held by two members of the Twana Dancers, a group formed to keep sacred songs and movements alive.

The covering drops, and Pavel emerges as Raven, wearing clothing woven by his wife, Susan, blue moccasins with yellow lightening bolts, and a large, beaked mask, hand carved by Skokomish artist Pete Peterson. Pavel cocks his head like a bird listening for distant sounds, and slowly he weaves his way into the crowd to the beat of drums and chants. Raven seems infused with a spirit not visible to the eyes.

"I was asked to ceremonially dance the mask. I was there to bring it alive," Pavel says. "Whoever buys this mask will acquire more than an item of beauty or an investment in art; they will feel that it brings them power and strength," he says.

The ceremony was all in a day's work for Pavel, who regularly traverses the space between cultures.

Destiny calls

Only 60 miles separate the Skokomish Indian Reservation from the University of Puget Sound, but for Pavel that distance might as well have been the gulf between continents.

Leaving the reservation after graduating from a rural Mason County high school -"hardly college preparatory," he recalls-required him to rely on his wit and the kindness of strangers during his first year of college. He remembers Puget Sound professors, coaches, and dining hall staff seeing promise in him as an 18-year-old and offering their time, counsel, jobs, and even food. With their support and Pavel's own fierce determination, his life's path began to reveal itself.

When Pavel was only 15, his uncle, Bruce Subiyay Miller, a Skokomish shaman, artist, ceremonial leader, and teacher, singled him out. "Michael showed an interest in learning the cultural ways at a young age. He just did things instead of talking about them," Miller says. He told Pavel, "I expect you to earn a Ph.D. in the Western educational system."

Miller then would entrust Pavel with the sacred teachings passed down to him by the elders, knowledge that had gone largely dormant over the past century due to influence by missionaries and interference by the government. Up until the 1970s, federal policy prohibited American Indians (Pavel uses American Indian/Alaska Native or Indians as generic terms to refer to 500-plus Indian nations in the United States) from practicing their spiritual beliefs and speaking their languages.

"But our language is part of our soul. We are dismembered when we lose our language, our land, our history, and our tradition," Miller says. He had learned the language, stories, songs, weaving, and other traditions from his great grandmothers and great aunts, who were born in the late 1800s. They sought him out at age 4 because he'd shown aptitude and interest.

Now the calling is Pavel's: "I know that when I'm gone, he will see that the knowledge is passed along," Miller says. And Pavel has stayed focused on fulfilling this vision.

After completing his B.A. at Puget Sound in urban affairs with an emphasis in community planning and social theory, Pavel went on to earn an M.Ed. and Ph.D. in higher and adult education at Arizona State University. He is one of fewer than 100 American Indians to hold a tenured professorship at a major research university in the United States: Washington State University in Pullman. In May, he received WSU's College of Education Faculty Excellence for Research Award, recognizing his work as a researcher, senior scholar with the Kellogg Foundation, and editorial board member for the American Education Research Association Journal. He is the author of two volumes on Indian education and is at work on what he hopes will be the definitive book on American Indians/Alaska Natives in higher education, describing "who we are, what we know, where we want to go," Pavel says.

Yet, above all other credentials on his resume, Pavel lists "tradition bearer of the Southern Puget Salish traditional culture, with a focus on learning the language, traditions, rituals, history, and ceremonial ways of life among the Twana and other Pacific Northwest Salish peoples."

"For this I am still being trained. I will never really graduate," he says. Pavel visits ceremonial leaders throughout Indian country, as well as those in indigenous cultures throughout the world to learn about the traditional ways of life that he knows will one day be partly his responsibility to help keep alive.

Two worlds; one ambition

Crisscrossing the state from Pullman to the foot of the Olympic Mountains near Hood Canal twice a month on average, it's not unusual for Pavel to teach a class and counsel doctoral students in WSU's School of Education on one day, serve as master of ceremonies at a Skokomish longhouse gathering well into the night the next day, and be back in Pullman soon after sunrise. "My loyalty is to both," he says.

"Some get confused about their different roles. I don't see any conflict," he says. "I see myself as a leader here on the reservation," Pavel said sitting in the Skokomish longhouse during WSU's winter break, "opening up access to young people and others who are searching with integrity for personal and cultural strength. In the same way, I see myself as a leader in the academy, opening up access and achievement opportunities for Indian people and others who want to get into the profession of higher education."

Karen James, an anthropologist who has worked for the Skokomish tribe since the 1970s and has known Pavel since he was in junior high school says, "I have seen a tremendous increase in the number of tribal members who earn college degrees. Michael has accomplished huge things. He has really devoted himself to learning about the past and how to make it work in the present. He has been a model and inspiration for children and adults to succeed in school. I have never heard him telling people what to do. He teaches by example."

On a summer afternoon, Miller and Pavel sit on Miller's porch peeling cedar bark into thin strips for weaving into hats and traditional Salish clothing, and Miller talks about improvements he's seen in the quality of life on the Skokomish reservation. Self esteem is up and mortality rates are down among the tribe's 800 members, a population that has grown from 527 in 1978. The education level of Skokomish Indians has risen dramatically, Pavel and Miller say, and the increase in marketable skills has led to better jobs for tribal members.

"Twenty-five to 30 years ago, people here were worried that no one was going to college. Now we have dozens of people who have acquired their bachelor's degrees, dozens who've earned graduate degrees. We have doctors, lawyers, accountants, and professors. This is relatively new.

"The native people are strong if they practice their culture," Pavel says. "You can see when people live by these beliefs. They keep a beautiful home, their dispositions are great, they're healthy. And you can also see where Indian people have lost their sense of harmony, power, and balance."

Other recent progress on the reservation is evidenced by the new longhouse filled with artists' carvings-painted in red, black, and white-that tell the creation story. Tribal members also have engaged in cooperative efforts with the U.S. Forest Service and the Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group, which is based in nearby Belfair's Mary E. Theler Community Center.

Language preserved

After the first frost comes the high ceremonial season of the Winter Guardian Spirit Dances. Puget Sound Salish hold spirit dances in smokehouses or longhouses throughout the winter. It is January, and the Skok longhouse is filled with 200 or more people representing tribes from throughout the Pacific Northwest. Joining them at the long tables set in rows are members of the Washington State Board of Education, who have been invited to celebrate the governor's proclamation certifying native language teachers to teach in Washington schools. "Now all we need is some money for this," Pavel says, only half joking.

"First peoples' languages are falling silent. Despite tribal efforts, their languages are not fully incorporated into the school systems. This is a loss to the cultural heritage of the affected tribes and to the cultural resources of Washington state," the Board of Education says in its written findings. In the longhouse that January night, Pavel, presiding over the ceremonies, invites board members to speak.

Board member Warren Smith, chair of the Equity Committee, stands and says, "I hope you will continue the fight-it's more than about language. It is my hope that the children in this longhouse won't have to put up with what some of you older people have had to face during your lifetime."

Also rising to speak is newly elected State Representative John McCoy of the Tulalip tribe. He recalls what some of the elders endured. "My father wouldn't speak our language because it was beaten out of him. We are the generations that have been skipped, losing our language, but my grandchildren are learning it today."

A Makah tribal leader stands and adds, "Our language was eradicated when our children were sent to government schools. But our way is not in the past. Look around this room. We're still singing our songs, speaking our language. It is an emotional time, what you people are doing to restore our languages. We wish you were here 100 years ago."

Abbey Smith of the Nooksack Indian Nation explains in an emotional voice, "My grandfather was the last Nooksack speaker. We are working with a professor on reviving the Nooksack language."

One by one, people of different ethnic backgrounds rise to voice support for restoring the languages that Miller calls the soul of his people. Washington's Assistant Superintendent of Public Instruction Andy Griffin says, "I learn so much as I listen to you talk about your language. I think of what language I could have had but do not. You have a sense of home that I do not. But when I listen to your drums, I realize that I, too, have a home."

On cue from Pavel, teenagers clear away tables, and Makah dancers take the dirt floor, where the lead singer says, "We come with a happy heart. We bless your floor." Dancers spread bags of eagle down, considered very precious, on the longhouse floor to the sound of rattles and drums.

The Kalispels, Klallams, Yakamas, and others then have their say. Then Pavel's voice booms out, "20,000 years ago our people were here. We continue tonight," and a song that says, "Look at my heritage, that's you," is sung by one of the elders.

"All of these songs were the building blocks of a nation. Each component was important in making up the whole," Miller explains. "Everyone has a spirit song. You are empty without a personal song."

Pavel asks the Spirit to speak, to choose witnesses to the night's ceremonial tribute celebrating the advancement of teaching native languages in public schools. Four elders hear the call and offer themselves to state what they've seen as most meaningful. Colorful new blankets are laid on the floor where the elders sit in chairs. As young people wrap the three women and one man in wool blankets, Pavel explains, "We put elders from different tribes close to one another on sacred ground because they often feel alone in trying to keep their traditional culture alive within their community. We recognize them and their work. We make sure that these living treasures are honored by the people."

And, in spoken word, the elders begin to paint a portrait of the night. "What happened here tonight is communication. By coming together and listening to each other, we learn. Take a piece of our culture, and take care of it and honor it. We must listen to learn," says Vi Hilbert, a linguist, storyteller, and teacher from the Upper Skagit Tribe.

An elder from the Colville Confederated Tribes near Spokane offers his impressions. "Seeing elders speak their languages-I took that into my heart. Elders were beaming and happy, and I felt the goodness of this place. This is the first time I've been in a home like this and it felt good. From my home to this home I'd like to share a song." And he sings a song, explaining that it is about a sorrel horse and safe travels home.

Along with happiness, shame is also expressed.

Pat Hawk, a Swinomish living with the Skokomish for 40 years, admits, "I feel ashamed because I don't know my native tongue. What you did for the elders tonight was awesome. Different tribes have come together for one common thing, to bring back the native tongue. Every time we lose an elder, we lose a piece of our history."

Reason to persevere

Until the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act, federal policy could be used to prohibit American Indians from holding spiritual gatherings like the winter spirit dance that the Washington State Board of Education attended this year. This change took effect only three years before Pavel started college at Puget Sound.

He remembers it as a tense time for Indians because of the 1974 ruling by Judge George Boldt affirming treaty rights and entitling local Indians to have access to salmon "in their usual and accustomed places," a victory that stopped arrests of tribal members and affirmed their cultural identity. Pavel was a junior at Puget Sound when the Supreme Court upheld Boldt's controversial decision. He remembers being shunned by some on campus, but he also says, "I became a better person because of the good people at Puget Sound who saw my potential and took the time to assist me in my development."
The road that once took Pavel worlds away keeps leading him back home. His vision continues to unfold.

As culture bearer for his tribe, what is he most proud of? "Showing up. Doing it." Pavel says. "This way of life deserves to live. We as human beings were given the charge to care for, to nourish and protect this way of life. The more we live productively and in harmony, we all reap the rewards. That's why I do it."

Sandra Sarr, director of communications at the University of Puget Sound from 1999 until recently, writes healing stories. She can be reached at