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July 24, 2006 Star Dolittle receives a hug from each member of a circle group made up of peers, instructors and tribal elders during the graduation ceremony for participants in this year's Konaway Nika Tillicum Native American

Konaway Academy weekend marks 11th annual performance

Walking through downtown Ashland on a Friday afternoon draws one into the usual city sounds; tourist chatter, snapping shutters, spilling ice cream, street musicians. But flowing from the band shell in Lithia Park on Friday was a deeper pulsing sound that awakened the city from its maudlin submetro slumber — the hold loosening as the sound of Native American drums grew louder and louder and more intoxicating.

Friday marked the 11th annual public performances by the graduating class of Konaway Nika Tillicum Native American Youth Academy. There was a lunchtime show at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Green Show, where the Academy presented OSF with a plaque for their support, and then a follow-up at 2:30 p.m. in Lithia Park. At these performances, the Native American students of Konaway get to demonstrate skills and arts that they have learned over the course of their week on the campus of Southern Oregon University, engaged in Konaway’s college preparatory curriculum.

It had been a long week for many of the junior and senior high school students, awakening early in the morning to head to classes on geometry, history and English. They took college preparation courses, learning about options and responsibilities. There were physical education courses, art courses, time to reflect on culture and the four rehearsals that brought the class and the community together on Friday; preparation for the public performances of dance, theater and poetry.

Friday was a grey, muggy day. Sweat stuck backs to T-shirts, and T-shirts to chairs.

The performance began late due to lack of power in the band shell. As locals and visiting parents filled chairs, the drum circle grew louder and Konaway dancers began to warm-up. But spirits rose as the colors of their red shirts and the bright markings of their traditional Native dress swirled around the Lithia lawn and band shell stage; brushstrokes of color on a drab day. Students paired off, gliding about to songs in the Native tongue and some in English.

Justice Florendo, son of Assistant Konaway director Brent Florendo, a giddy youth in full red and blue tribal attire insisted he was Spider-Man, as a youth councilor tossed him into the air again and again and he squealed in delight. Some audience members were asked to dance, resulting in some of them finding themselves on the Lithia stage for the first time, being led in new dances by teenagers. The sound and power were turned on and the show began for an eager crowd.

Earlier in the week, student Shawn Walker, 16, explained the significance of a program like Konaway. “I come from a family of eight brothers and sisters, all high school drop-outs. Then I moved in with my aunt who showed me there are opportunities beyond high school. She sent me here.”

At Konaway, Walker learned about the various steps that take a student closer to high school. Students learned how to invest in themselves.

In the Lithia band shell Friday, Walker stands up and shouts, “I’m not a drunk. I’m not a druggie. I’m proud of who I am.” This performance piece is designed to remind students and the community that as Native Americans represent only one percent of the U.S. population, only two percent of that minority is documented for substance abuse, according to Konaway Director David West.

— — Agnes Baker-Pilgrim, an elder with the Confederated Tribes of the Siletz Indians, speaks to graduates of the Konaway Nika Tillicum Native American Youth Academy about the importance of higher education and changing the world Saturday at Southern Oregon University.

“They’re still a part of our family, and like all family there are struggles to overcome.”

Following the theatrical and interpretive dance portions, students recited poetry and West gave an impromptu speech. He thanked the community for their support and spoke of a small black spider he had encountered earlier in the day. He had asked the spider to cool things off in Ashland for a bit for his students, shortly before clouds drifted in front of the sun that morning.

“We must all remember to give thanks to a tiny black spider,” said West with a big grin.

Saturday mornings in Ashland are much quieter than Friday afternoons. However, at 9:30 A.M. in the Cascade residency complex of SOU, spirits were soaring even higher than on the previous day as the Konaway students prepare for their graduation, with many of their parents in tow.

Retiring SOU president Elisabeth Zinser spoke briefly, following the opening drums and invocations. “Inviting this university to experience such a rich culture can’t help but resonate inside us all,” said Zinser, “This program has been one of the most prominent and lasting experiences I have had at this university.”

As awards and laudations were handed out, college preparatory instructor James Florendo administered one final pop quiz to his students. “To get into college, what is the most important thing you need to apply?” “Ourselves,” answered Richard “Peanut” Brown, a 14-year-old returning student. James Florendo smiles, knowing that for this year, his work with the Konaway students in done.

The ceremony continued, with students surrounded by their week’s labors; art projects, math models and historic timelines lining the walls of the classroom. Councilor and math instructor D.J. Whorely said, “I’m proud of each of you. You keep the blood flowing in my veins all year long.” Each student was handed a diploma, and an intricate bead necklace.

As spirits were at their peak, they did as spirits do: disperse. Following graduation, everything returned to normal. Messes were cleaned, hugs were administered and cars left the SOU parking lot, each headed in a different direction. For the Konaway staff and students, it wass merely a pause till next year. As West said earlier, “For 51 weeks a year, the kids are yours. For one week they’re mine.” And with Konaway’s impressive student retention and the nominal success rates, students of Konaway do not feel as though they are merely attending class. Rather, as Shawn Walker said, “This is a really good opportunity to come here and learn. This is your family. They’ll always be here to help you and support you.”

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