Lelooska Cultural Center captivates kids

Ariel facility has shared Native American culture since 1960s

By Susan Parrish, Columbian education reporter


photoClick to enlarge.

In the woods near Lake Merwin, yellow school buses pull up to a cedar house. The bus doors open, ejecting energetic third-graders who propel toward the house.

It's field trip day at the Lelooska Cultural Center in Ariel, 10 miles east of Woodland. Over the course of a school year, about 10,000 third- and fourth-graders visit the site. Thursday's students are from four Clark County schools: Marshall and Washington elementary schools from Vancouver Public Schools, Woodburn Elementary from Camas School District and Pacific Crest Academy, a private school.

Free summer events

All events are from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

• June 7: Ravenstail weaving demonstration.

• June 28: Making cordage from nature.

• July 19: Painted art on a rawhide parflesche.

• Aug. 16: Buttons, blankets and the trade.

Chattering, the students enter the cedar house through double doors.

"This is a long house!" one girl says.

"Too cool!" a boy says.

"It scares me! It scares me!" a girl with pigtails says.

Kids settle onto the long, squared-off log benches on either side. In the center, a fire pit on the dirt floor is neatly stacked with a fire. Smoke and embers waft through a hole in the ceiling. As the students sit down and begin looking around, the decibel level continues to rise. The double doors close and eventually, the kids stop talking.

Out of sight, the sound of a drum, a wooden flute and singing punctuate the silence.

If you go

• What: Living history performances of Northwest Coast First Nations culture.

• Where: Lelooska Cultural Center, 165 Merwin Village Road, Ariel.

• When: 7 p.m. June 14; grounds open at 5:30 p.m.

• Cost: Advance tickets required: $12 adults, $8 children 12 and younger. Buy tickets online.

• Phone: 360-225-9522.

A voice coming from a tall carved figure welcomes the students. Its mouth blows a blessing as fluffs of goose down feathers fall toward the children, who erupt in "oohs" and "ahs."

Chief Tsugani, dressed in Northwest Coast regalia, explains that his people did not live in tipis, ride pinto ponies or hunt buffalo. Then he begins spinning a story.

"Think of yourselves as great gray wolves in the house of the wolf chief," Tsugani says, and asks the children to join him in howling like a wolf.

Draped in a deer hide, a deer woman wearing a carved mask emerges, dancing around the fire. She is joined by four dancers draped in wolf hides and wearing carved wolf masks. As they spin around the fire, pelts flying behind them, they howl. On cue, the children howl with them.

The kids seem mesmerized.

As the chief spins stories, he is joined by other masked dancers: Bukwus, wild man of the woods; Numas, the old man; Full Moon and Half Moon; Qulus, ancestor of the Quigwasutinux; Echo, a small spirit; Grandmother Loon and Dzunugwa, the timber giant.

But the final story elicits the biggest reaction from the students. The double doors rattle. Some creature outside wants in! The doors fly open and Angry Bear bursts into the long house. Wearing a bear skin and a carved mask, he lunges toward the kids and swipes his long, sharp claws through the air. The kids scream and laugh as Angry Bear dances around the fire, showing his great claws.

At the end of the bear's dance, the kids applaud. Slowly, they file out of the long house and head toward the museum.

A student turned to another and said, "That bear was scary!"

Family tradition

The Lelooska family has been telling stories and presenting living history demonstrations of the Northwest Coast First Nations since the 1960s. Once lead by Chief Lelooska, who died in 1996, the storyteller now is Chief Tsugani, youngest brother of Chief Lelooska. Tsugani is joined by his two daughters, Lottie Stoll-Smith and Mariah Ts'igilhilaqu, his granddaughter Mara Reese and family friends John Clapp, Sharon Kelley and Nicole Pearson.

Sometimes Mariah Ts'igilhilaqu is the dancer who wears the Grandmother Loon transformation mask that surprises the audience when it flaps open to reveal a different character's head inside.

"When you open that mask up, you can see just a tiny bit," Ts'igilhilaqu said. "It's enough to see the awe on their faces."

Free events will be offered during four Saturdays in the summer. The museum, featuring a collection of Native American artifacts, is open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. every Saturday, May 24 through Aug. 30.