MARYHILL, Wash. — It was the stuff of legends.
And to the third- and fourth-graders from Westside and May Street elementary schools, it was the perfect way to spend a day.
The students traveled to the Maryhill Museum on Monday to take part in “Museum Week,” a program the museum hosts each year for students from around the Mid-Columbia. This year’s theme was Native American art and culture, and much of it centered around the legend of She Who Watches.
The students spent the morning rotating among three “stations,” which included a hands-on art project, a presentation by a Native American weaver, and a tour of the museum’s Native American collections. Museum volunteer Dan Ellis also gathered groups of kids around him during each session and told them the legend of She Who Watches.
“Many, many years ago there was a coyote,” Ellis told one group sitting cross-legged on the floor. “Coyote was a trickster in the legends.” He went on to tell how Coyote tricked a benevolent woman chief and turned her into stone so she would forever watch over her people from high above the Columbia River. That, he said, is how the famous petroglyph came to be at Horsethief Lake State Park east of Dallesport, Wash.
Ellis also explained that telling stories, like the legend of She Who Watches, was an important part of Native American life.
“That’s how the children and families kept the history and traditions of the family going,” Ellis said. The students then got to look at the petroglyphs and pictographs on display, as well as baskets, tools and other Native American artifacts.
“I can hear the Indians,” said one May Street student as he hugged a petroglyph displayed in the middle of the room.
Upstairs in the museum, students got to hear Native American fiber artist B.K. Courtney talk about her traditional weavings, basketry and other art.
“The Wasco people used to live in the Columbia Gorge, from Celilo on down to Hood River,” said Courtney, who is descended from the Wasco Indians on her mother’s side and the Tlinget Indians of Alaska on her father’s.
She passed around woven bags and baskets she’d made — and was in the process of making.
“Baskets like this were used to dig roots,” she said, holding one up. “They’d take a digging stick out in the early spring and dig up roots. I used to do this with my mom.” Other baskets were used for storing salmon and berries, she said, while still others were made for trading with other tribes.
Courtney also sews blankets and wall-hangings, and showed the students one that was based on the She Who Watches design.
“She Who Watches is something that’s close to the heart of Native people around here,” she said. “It’s my favorite design.”
The art station, in still another part of the museum, gave the students a chance to try their hand at Native American art and legends by painting their own version of She Who Watches with watercolors. Art instructor Alice Bonham encouraged the students to paint a border around their subject using the geometric patterns prevalent in Native American art.
“If you draw something you don’t like, don’t worry,” she said. “Turn your line into something else. I’m daring you to not use your eraser.”
And nary an eraser was seen as the students created their own brightly-colored interpretations of the Native legend, many with huge eyes just like the real petroglyph.
The students took a break for lunch on the museum’s lawn before an assembly featuring Native American musician and storyteller James Greeley.
During the break, students expressed enthusiasm about what they’d learned.
“I liked She Who Watches,” said Westside third-grader Katie Smith. “I liked most all of it.”
Kristin Davis, a fourth-grader at May Street, agreed. “It was awesome,” she said. “I liked all the baskets and stuff.”
Another May Street fourth-grader, Mycole Muns, liked seeing the different patterns in the Native art.
“I just like it because it’s cool,” she said. In the eyes of these students it seems, Native art and legends are in.