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Camp Confluence in session at Cathlapotle Plankhouse in Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge

Kids learn about Indigenous history, culture during two-week program

By Chrissy Booker, Columbian staff writer
Published: July 20, 2023, 6:51pm
3 Photos
Chinook Indian Nation Vice Chair Sam Robinson, from left, Cowlitz Indian Tribe spiritual leader Tanna Engdahl, Cowlitz Indian Tribe Council Chair Patty Kinswa-Gaiser and Mildred Robinson lead campers in song during Camp Confluence at the Cathlapotle Plankhouse in the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge.
Chinook Indian Nation Vice Chair Sam Robinson, from left, Cowlitz Indian Tribe spiritual leader Tanna Engdahl, Cowlitz Indian Tribe Council Chair Patty Kinswa-Gaiser and Mildred Robinson lead campers in song during Camp Confluence at the Cathlapotle Plankhouse in the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge. (Photos by Taylor Balkom/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

RIDGEFIELD — The Cathlapotle Plankhouse is a hand-built symbol of Indigenous history.

Inside, red and black paint adorns the interior posts; the walls are composed of a fallen tree that members of the Indigenous community harvested themselves. Carved from cedar and made up of hand-stripped bark, Cathlapotle is a space where community members come together in unity.

On Wednesday, the newly established summer program, Camp Confluence, traveled to Cathlapotle, where a new generation learned firsthand about Indigenous peoples and their history.

Local nonprofit Confluence launched the two-week program for kids in grades four through eight to learn from Indigenous educators about Indigenous land, culture and history.

Through artwork, daily activities and outdoor field trips to culturally and environmentally significant sites, campers experience Washington through the lens of Indigeneity.

Confluence Executive Director Colin Fogarty wanted to ensure the camp uplifted the voices of Indigenous educators in Washington.

“The mission of Confluence is to connect people with the history, living culture and ecology of the Columbia River system through Indigenous voices,” said Fogarty. “Our role is to create a collective understanding of where we live.”

According to him, the program was a group effort.

“For most of our history doing education work, we’ve partnered with schools, but this is the first time we’re doing it all ourselves,” Fogarty said. “We really had to increase our capacity. It was all hands on deck.”

Built in 2002 by members of the Chinook and Cowlitz Indian tribes, the Cathlapotle Plankhouse represents community strength and exists as a sacred and historical site for Indigenous history.

Bless the space

During their visit, campers gathered inside the plankhouse and listened to Sam Robinson, vice chairman of the Chinook Indian Nation and board member on the Confluence Tribal Council. He is among the many who helped hand-build Cathlapotle.

Robinson explained the historical significance of Cathlapotle and the history of the Chinook Tribe in Washington. Together, Robinson and campers sang a traditional song to bless the space.

“This house has a soul because of the living cedar trees it is made out of,” Robinson said. “To have the kids in here was wonderful. We want to make this house a place with good spirits.”

Indigenous educator Louise Willmes says an important aspect of Camp Confluence is traveling to historical sites where kids can make tangible connections with Indigenous history.

“They’re not going to learn it, if they don’t get outside,” Willmes said. “Once we bring them out to the land, we give them those kinds of concepts and hope they bring them back.”

The second week of Camp Confluence ends on Friday, but Fogarty says there are plans to continue the program next summer.

“We are not telling the stories ourselves, we’re creating a venue for Sam and others to tell the stories on their own terms,” said Fogarty.

Community Funded Journalism logo

This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.

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