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Indian students fete spirit, family, graduation

Days before the South Kitsap High School graduating class of 2007 tossed their tassels at last night's commencement at the Tacoma Dome, a small group of students held their own spiritual ceremony.

Outside of Orchard Heights Elementary, Native American students gathered around William Gilstrap to prepare for their graduation celebration.

Inside, they would eat, watch a team of dancers and receive an eagle feather for their academic accomplishment.

But first, Gilstrap had to cleanse their spirits.

In a large seashell, Gilstrap ignited a small pile of sage leaves. The burning leaves gave off smoke as Gilstrap stoked the flame with a fan made of feathers.

Fanning the smoke on the students' fronts, backs and under their feet, Gilstrap explained that the spiritual "smudging" lifts negative feelings away and invites the students' ancestors to come down.

"If you have any negative feelings in you, try to let it go," Gilstrap explained, waving the fan about and occasionally brushing it over the students' heads.

The South Kitsap Indian Parent Advisory Council (SKIPAC) organized the event for the students, bringing together family and culture for a unique celebration.

SKIPAC member Theresa Longman gushed over the accomplishments of the students. She explained that Native American students struggle in public schools, yet in South Kitsap the students are thriving. Last year, 90 percent met standards on the reading portion of the WASL.

Longman said this event is more meaningful to the families involved.

"This, to me, is the real graduation ceremony," Longman said. It's more personal, it's more spiritual."

After opening with a prayer, the group watched native dances with stories and explanations. The dancers wore red robes, and between performances turned their backs to display the family's crest.

Closing the evening, each student received a certificate acknowledging their graduation and an eagle feather.

The event celebrated the accomplishment of every graduating American Indian in the district, present or not, including Russell Brunelle, Alyssa Drevniak, Terris Gardner, Hannah Garner, Bridgette Gray, Cassandra Harris, Joshua Haver, Jake Hemphill, Shauna Hoffman, Cassandra Howe, Tatyana Howes, Elyse Hubbell, Nicole Jones, Jacob Koch-Brigham, Anthony Laur, Julia Mathison, Kammi Mortenson, Jasmin Oliveras-Palmer, Kenneth Phipps, Nicole Prince, Joshua Puckett, Christina Roark, Glenn Screws, Sean Surratt, Lea Wgrzyniak, Daniel Yorba, Donald Yorba-Thrall and Joseph Yorba-Thrall.

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