The rich soils, rivers and skies along the Columbia nourished and inspired the original peoples of the region for thousands of years.
Now a new generation of inhabitants, including 13 Hood River Middle School students, is being encouraged to experience the cultural and creative heritage of the area.
"Gifts from Our Ancestors" is a two-year program led by local artists, educators and the Confluence Project, to engage more than 1,500 tribal and non-tribal students in the artistic, musical and oral traditions practiced by Native Americans along the Columbia River for generations.
This week renowned Native American artist Lillian Pitt shared her skills as a clay sculptor with willing and eager teens at the Columbia Center for the Arts.
"We are making Steahah (stick) Indians," said Pitt. "These were mythical beings that were there to help children behave."
When Pitt was growing up, she recalled picking huckleberries alongside her mother and being told to "listen for the whistle" of the Steahah.
"If you were good, they would lead you out of a forest if you were lost. If you were bad, they would lead you deeper in," said Pitt.
That alluring whistle is an important feature in the Steahah masks being created by Pitt's students.
"The whistle-mouth must be there," said Pitt. Glancing around the room, it is clear the cultural story has been successfully translated into striking and pronounced facial features.
"It is sort of scary," said Adrian Ramirez when asked about the Steahah story. "It would really work to make kids listen to their parents ... I just like making the actual masks, too."
Pitt brings more than heritage and artistic skill to the students. In her storytelling, she shares a universal wisdom as well.
"I want them to play with the clay without expectations. It takes courage to create something of their very own," said Pitt. "They are amazing and wonderful."
Primarily a sculptor and mixed media artist, Lillian Pitt's lifetime of works include artistic expressions in clay, bronze, wearable art, prints, and most recently, glass. The focus of her work draws on more than 12,000 years of Native American history and tradition of the Columbia River region.
By engaging students and their communities in rich, regional history and modern-day storytelling experiences, "Gifts from Our Ancestors" intends to ensure the continued cultural and ecological stewardship of the Columbia River and its tributaries.
In addition to the mask making, the HRMS students will be involved in a digital storytelling project throughout the week, culminating in a stop-action animated story which focuses on the Celilo Falls and its influence on the region.
Shelley Toon Hight, education and outreach coordinator for the Columbia Center for the Arts, will be leading the image creation for that mixed-media project. Katie Basile, photojournalist, will be teaching students the technical assembly of the work.
Students will incorporate cultural and historical information into their hand-drawn stories, which will then be digitalized using iMovie and Garage Band.
"Not only do digital stories provide a perfect platform to introduce technology and various visual art media, tools and techniques, it allows students to create a finished product that can be shared with a multitude of people for generations to come," said Toon Hight. The project is a way of "passing on the rich tradition of storytelling in new media."
The completed film will become part of a traveling exhibit with the Confluence Project and be maintained in its archives.
Toon Hight added, "I admire the work Lillian Pitt does as an artist and as a culture bearer ... I am so excited that our students have the privilege to meet her and work with her."
HRMS, along with 14 other schools, was selected to receive grant funding to support the project. It received $3,000 to help cover material expenses and visits from artists and cultural experts.