More Than Child Care: Building a Center of Heritage and Culture

Students painting at the Snoqualmie Tribe Child Care Center

Ginger de los Angeles can picture the video: a little girl in her kitchen, twirling, spinning as she happily sings the words to a Tribal Snoqualmie song she learned at school.

Literally and figuratively, it’s music to Ginger’s ears.

“That video says the children are learning our traditional ways together,” says Ginger about the Washington child care center where the little girl in the video learned the song. “That fills me with so much joy.”

The center is the Snoqualmie Indian Tribe Child Development Center, a child care program run by Bright Horizons on Tribal land near Seattle. Ginger is the Tribe’s cultural director, one of the many people who’ve been involved with the program from the ground up. And the little girl, the daughter of a Tribe member who sent the video, is one of the 70 infants through preschoolers who attend the center, a place designed to at once address the culture priorities of being a Tribe member, the practical issues of parenting, and the hiring obstacles for local businesses.

“Child care aids in economic development,” says Snoqualmie Chairman Robert de los Angeles, “enabling our tribe and the broader community to thrive, as more individuals can engage in work and contribute to the community's growth.”

For the Snoqualmie Valley, lack of child care has become a known stumbling block. The area, like so many places in the country, has seen child care availability plummet in recent years, with waits for infant or toddler care today stretching to a year or more. Hard-to-find resources are both a personal and community problem, with parents without child care hard pressed to work, and the local economy (the Salish Lodge and the Snoqualmie Casino among other Tribal enterprises) challenged to thrive without them. “For a lot of candidates,” says the Tribe’s General Resources Manager Audrey Castleberry, “benefit packages are now being equally considered to salary. To be able to offer this really allow the Tribe and its enterprises a leg up on the competition.”

But local leaders saw another opportunity – to support Snoqualmie identity. Native peoples, says Audrey, are not only something to consider in history books. “They are living, thriving, strong communities with a beautiful cultural richness that should be recognized and celebrated for future generations.” With Snoqualmie culture embedded, the child care center brought an opportunity to do that from the youngest ages.

It was a project for which Bright Horizons came uniquely prepared. In more than three decades, the company has made it a mission not just to provide early learning and child care, but also centers that fit the communities in which they live: a program drenched in science for a tech company; another reflecting cultural touchstones – like traditional tea ceremonies – requested by a local Asian community.

“When we talk about diversity,” says Carol Howard, Bright Horizons director of education quality and inclusion, “we emphasize the importance of relationships with children and families where they are.”

For the Snoqualmie center, it meant adapting Bright Horizons’ discovery-driven curriculum to reflect Tribal art, customs, and relationship to the land. Staff from the two teams met regularly throughout planning, with Bright Horizons providing the established early learning protocols, and Tribal departments voicing elements they wanted to include. Today, monthly offerings run in rhythm with the Tribe’s native lifeways calendar: storytelling from elders; harvesting lessons from the culture department; indigenous planting with the environmental team. Classrooms are fit with rawhide rattles and drums, and turtle rattles painted by Tribal Elders. Recognized Snoqualmie holidays – like Tribal Federal Re-Recognition and Chiefs Day – are all celebrated. Lushootseed – the Tribe’s language that Ginger says was considered almost extinct just few decades ago – is front and center in signage, on the website, (“Welcome! haʔł t(i) adsłčil”), and even in the children’s traditional morning greeting: wiʔaac.

“Working with Bright Horizons has been truly collaborative,” says Tribe Chairman Robert de los Angeles. “Their commitment is evident in the inclusive environment they’ve built.”

For Ginger, the touchstone to traditions is familiar, bringing back her own childhood, when, as the daughter of the Tribe Chairman, she’d sit at the foot of elders at Tribal meetings, soaking up customs as if by osmosis. She and the rest of the Snoqualmie community hope the center can offer today’s children those same opportunities to learn and bring those traditions home. It’s also a chance for children who are not members of the Tribe to get a new perspective on the Snoqualmie.

"I’ve seen children at two years old knowing how to drum, sing, and culturally care for a drum,” says center parent Bessie MedicineBird. “It is truly unique to see young children as part of cultural and language revitalization.”

“We hope the children at the center can carry forward their learning and experiences here as they enter the adult world,” adds Audrey.

Judging by that little girl singing in her kitchen, they already are.

Students painting at the Snoqualmie Tribe Child Care Center

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