Profile in Courage in Public Education: Wa He Lut Indian School

Courage written in chalk on a blackboard with a heart for an O.

Submitted by Wa He Lut community members

October 2023

Serving 26 tribes in three states, the Wa He Lut Indian School is a fascinating, unusual school represented by Capital Region Educational Service District 113. It is located near the Nisqually River and is home to 140 students and 15 staff members. Its mission is “to provide a safe and culturally relevant academic environment that embraces traditional teachings and values of respect, responsibility and pride.”

Founded in 1974, this tiny school has courageously fought to preserve the culture of Native Americans; but has also bridged the gap of becoming an official Washington State School District, which ensures the financial future of funding. Its students come from the Chehalis, Squaxin, Skokomish, Puyallup, and Nisqually tribes. Some students ride the bus for over an hour each morning and evening to attend. “We have one foot in each camp,” said a staff member, “but our students are willing to travel great distances to live within our culture.” Our Board of Directors is locally elected and faces the same budgeting and state mandates of the other 295 state school districts.

“Culturally, we keep the Native American beliefs faithfully, in every way possible.” Through songs, pledges, prayers, dances, celebrations, language, and traveling, the students celebrate their culture in a student body circle at least two times per week. “It takes great faith to keep our culture consistent when so much around us is changing,” said one staff member.

One of the school’s greatest challenges was student learning during COVID. A staff aide said, “We operated a hybrid learning model as well as we could but celebrated when all of our students returned to campus. We are still trying to recover student learning since then.”

One staff member has the position of culture teacher. He is Nez Perce and has taught at the school for many years. For history, he asks the students to interview their grandparents about the Indian boarding schools used in the Pacific Northwest early in the 20th century. “Then, the students were not allowed to speak their Native languages and were expected to forget their culture,” he said. “We respect our ancestors and their ability to remain culturally faithful”. The staff especially appreciate the four local tribes of the Nisqually, Squaxin, Puyallup, and Chehalis tribes for their wonderful museums where they can record their histories.

Finally, one staff member who has worked at the school for 16 years said, “I am but a servant. I work to keep our school in compliance with the State of Washington and with the beliefs of our wonderful families. That is what I do.”

Would you like to nominate someone for our Board of Directors to honor as a profile in courage?

  • Any employee, resident, volunteer, or student in one of the 44 school districts and one tribal school represented by Capital Region ESD 113 is eligible to submit candidates for consideration to [email protected].
  • Please keep submissions to 400 words or less. Photos are also welcome.
  • A small committee will review the applications. The Board Chair will read one selection each month prior to our Board meeting. In addition, that month’s submission will be prominently featured on our ESD 113 website.

Think about the heroes in your life who have done courageous things to support our students and staff members. We want to honor the wonderful role models who have been working in our public schools!