Bruce subiyay Miller at the 2004 NEA National Heritage Awards Dinner.
“Teachings of the Tree People”
Teacher: Bruce subiyay Miller
20 minute video available on VHS from SAM
Producer Katie Jennings, IslandWood, 2004
assH3’qap.wps (as sha kop – stupid or foolish)
Why Stories are Important
Told by Bruce subiyay Miller
Recorded by Katie Jennings, IslandWood, 2004
Bruce (subiyay) Miller is
an artist, teacher, historian, storyteller and spiritual leader from the
Skokomish Indian Reservation, near
Bruce with his great grandmother, 1940's
Bruce at home after Vietnam
Teachings of the Tree People introduces us to the teaching style of subiyay. As an educator he combines both Native American traditional modes of teaching and contemporary practices, as he presents the teachings of the oldest inhabitants of the earth, the tree people. In this film, subiyay introduces us to this way of seeing the world as he pursues traditional activities such as gathering and preparing cedar bark to weave into cedar house mats; in apprenticeships and learning opportunities with
Bruce Miller and Karen Reed working on a cedar mat
his elders; sharing the history of his familial heritage and pondering the messages of our natural world. Though subiyay has lost one leg, suffers from diabetes, and experiences ongoing episodes of heart trouble and pneumonia, physical hardship seems only to renew his determination to transmit the rare and valuable cultural information he holds. In the course of the film we meet an apprentice who is learning from subiyay to work with cedar bark and we see subiyay teaching children the process of cedar mat-making. Throughout the film we observe the yearlong process of creating a series of large woven cedar house mats and we explore the meaning of “a teacher” that he personifies.
The story of subiyay is like that of his culture, one of perseverance in the face of adversity. He has persisted and has grown stronger as well as inspired strength in others. Like a nurse log he nurtures young saplings who derive sustenance and grounding from his presence. His work will ensure the persistence of endangered plants and the flourishing of endangered cultural practices, thereby strengthening and enriching the world.
As proponents of traditional American Indian education we encourage the use of this film in such a manner. Attributes of teaching from this approach include hands-on experiential learning, observation, storytelling as lesson, instruction and the transmission of knowledge, witnessing and listening, patience and persistence in practicing new skills. Included in this module are suggestions for teaching from a more traditional cultural approach.
The knowledge from Teachings of the Tree People can be accessed in a variety of ways. One approach includes investigating the question of “What makes a teacher?” In this video two compelling teachers are Grandmother Cedar and our elders. They offer many lessons in patience, perseverance, generosity, culture and ancestral heritage. There is much to be learned about history, science, mathematics, ecology and the environment as well. The information in this film is organized according to the six structured segments that conform to the six parts of the video.
1. Don’t teach them all the same thing.
Warren King George, apprentice
to subiyay, describes his learning as hands-on as he is taught the seasonal
cues of when to harvest the cedar; observing the sap and the leafing of the maple
and alder leaves.
In this section,
Through this experience,
2. He was the only one.
At the Northwest Native
American Basket Weavers Association (NNABA) annual gathering, we observe and
witness the revitalization of a cultural practice: weaving (see description in
basket module). As subiyay interacts with his community we see the
fruits of his perseverance in teaching. Many of the conference participants
learned how to gather, prepare and weave the materials from subiyay, inspiring
a renewal in basket weaving. Vi taqwsheblu Hilbert,
3. A victim of erosion
Before Euro-American contact there were millions of indigenous Native people living on this land. As noted by the explorers, there were no noticeable signs of overpopulation or environmental degradation. The original people of this land spoke on behalf of and gave great respect to the environment. Of utmost value to them was to be in balance with nature. The plants, animals, air and water were the first teachers and therefore well protected.
During subiyay’s lifetime (he was born in 1943) noticeable environmental changes have taken place. He watched as people lost interest in what the plants and the environment had to say: our environment is trying to tell us that something is desperately wrong. The air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat is polluted. Tribes and nations are judging one another, worse yet, people are trying to harm one another – we are all victims of erosion. This is subiyay’s way of saying that the health of the environment is linked to the health of human beings.
4. To see all your teachers disappear
How can anyone ensure that cultural knowledge is passed on? If a teacher does not pass their wisdom on then it will die with them. The knowledge is simply gone.
How we refer to human knowledge and how we preserve it has changed significantly since the development of written languages. For the ancestors of the indigenous Americans, shared knowledge of cultural concepts was a tool for survival. Native Americans, Alaskan Natives, and Canadian First Nations hold common beliefs about their origins, histories, moral and ethical behaviors, and education using story symbology, oral traditions and spiritual beliefs. Many believe, for example, that the plants and animals were placed on earth first. They were to experience all the tribulations necessary to survive in a new world. The animals’ life experiences would become the teachings on which humans would base their cultures.
5. The living breath
This segment shows school children helping to make large cedar mats with subiyay. The process of weaving cedar together (raw materials) to form a mat (a meaningful object) is a metaphor for building community and for the teachings that are passed down from teacher to students. The uniqueness of each person’s endeavor is meshed into a unified whole. Each person, each strip of cedar, contributes meaningfully to the final creation. As the children participate in the making of the mats through a communal hands-on experience, they can say “I was there, I participated, I helped,” thus creating a lasting memory that they can tell their own grandchildren about in the future. In this segment subiyay combines traditional approaches (such as using gestural clues) and contemporary approaches (such as using integrative learning) in his instruction of the youth.
Subiyay uses the metaphors or concepts of the umbilical cord, the living breath, and tree rings to describe the process of creating a legacy from one generation to another so that the teachings live on. The “umbilical” metaphor stands for the intimate connections that the students are creating through the weaving – connection to the cedar, to the creative process, to the other participants, and to the teacher. The “living breath” is the spirit or the essence of each person, which is left behind in their work and their interactions with others. As tree rings tell the natural history of the environment (rainfall, drought, sunlight, chronological age) and of the tree itself, the practice of Native traditions from one generation to the next creates a human history. If humans are in synch with their environment, their histories (or their “tree rings”) overlap and are integrated.
6. Skokomish Reservation (The Importance of Health)
As subiyay communicates to us that he had been diabetic for nearly 15 years before seeking treatment, we are asked to look within and determine how we can take better care of ourselves. Without a sound body, how can we be stewards of this earth? As we achieve better health we have more energy to ensure the transmission of knowledge for future generations. We understand that one day subiyay will be gone but his living breath will always remain in the stories, lessons, songs and art he has created and shared.
By watching Teachings of the Tree People we can become part of a learning community as a witness and recipient of ancestral wisdom and the important role of a teacher.
Students will explore concepts and stories that demonstrate
1. View “Teachings of the Tree People”:
2. Listen to the story of “ash3’qap.wps.” As a writing reflection, have the students pose and answer their own questions.
3. Observe and listen to a plant or tree for one week.
1. Name different types of teachers in our communities.
2. Describe some messages and information we receive from our environment.
3. What are some lessons the Coast Salish might have learned from Grandmother Cedar?
4. How was cedar utilized in the daily life of Coast Salish people?
Cultural Identity Discussion and Activity
1. Ask the students to name their great grandparents. What do they know about their family heritage?
2. Ask the students to interview a grandparent, elder or older relative about family history or stories. As a class they can share their findings with one another.
3. Let the students know they are now responsible for passing the family knowledge on to new family members.
Cedar Discussion and Activity
1. Ask the class if they know what a cedar tree looks like. How is it different from other evergreens? Discuss where they have seen one, how often, how many and what feelings they had when they saw a cedar? Pass around several sprigs of fresh cedar so the students can touch and smell it. Ask them how the cedar scent makes them feel. Imagine what a cedar tree has to say.
2. Weaving paper mats:
Native Americans have always utilized materials that were readily found in the environment. In the film we saw the children working with cedar. In this exercise the students will practice weaving together strips of paper into a mat.
Skokomish—In the mid-1800s nine subgroups (Skokomish,
Hoodsport, Duhlelap, Quilcene,
Twana —Twana people are from the Puget Sound area of the
elders — In many American Indian communities an elder is generally someone who is 55 years of age or older. This person is sought out for wisdom. They are the culture bearers of the people transmitting knowledge from one generation to the next. Their knowledge is often shared through stories. They carry great responsibility as role models.
winter longhouse — From the first frost of the fall to the last frost in the spring, storytellers would travel from village to village, longhouse to longhouse, telling tales of creation, the forces of the natural world, cultures, and peoples. In Puget Salish communities this was a time when people gathered for the tales told by the elders and storytellers during the long winter nights.
apprentice —An apprentice is a beginner who works with a master in order to learn a profession or craft, or who might mentor with a teacher to learn personal growth and life skills. For Native Americans, teachers are also considered to be healers and students will align themselves with such a teacher/healer whom they trust to supervise their overall growth. The bond between teacher and apprentice is profound, and teachers do not readily accept students. There may be years of testing the student’s intention and commitment before the dynamic stage of training begins. This preparation period is considered essential, a time in which the prospective apprentice learns patience, respect, and perhaps most importantly, how to receive knowledge.
Clearly, L.M., Peacock,
T.D. Collected Wisdom: American
Stewart, Hillary. Cedar: Tree of Life to the
ed. A Time of Gathering: Native Heritage in
From the Time of Our Ancestors, featuring Music of the Pacific Northwest. By Bruce Miller and Shabush3sh. Distributor: Ten Wolves, 2000.
Our Living Ancestors, featuring stories by Vi taqwsheblu Hilbert and Bruce subiyay Miller. Produced by Paul D.G. Eubanks for Ten Wolves, 2003
In June 1996 the Northwest Native American Basket- weaver’s
Association was formed. The main event for NNABA is its annual Gathering
where over 100 weavers meet to share skills, stories, materials, and each
http://www.cradleboard.org Created by Nihewan Foundation for American Indian Education, this site contains cultural information and curriculum.
http://www.mnsu.edu/emuseum/cultural/northamerica/twana.html This site gives a comprehensive definition of who the Twana people are and their cultural practices.
http://www.nea.gov/honors/heritage/Heritage04/Miller.html This is the official site for the 2004 National Heritage Award. You will find two speeches here given by subiyay.
Contains information on the prestigious annual fellowship award presented to Bruce subiyay Miller.
This is a comprehensive
site for Native American resources on the Internet, including an event
calendar, links to American Indian radio, message boards, resources and helpful
http://www.nativeweb.com Contains links to information about historical and contemporary Native American issues.