Acknowledging footprints

Enjoying San Juan Islands as well as remembering those who were there first 

Symbol of the Upper Skagit Tribe (Perris Larson/Seattle Pacific University)

Summer vacation, research expedition or a Seattle Pacific University field trip, the San Juan Islands have something to offer everyone. Blakely Island is one of 172 named islands in the archipelago that consists of the San Juans.

While the islands are appealing for their scenic beauty and wildlife, there is another aspect: the tribes who inhabited the land long before Europeans came into the picture.

Scott Schuyler, member, cultural and natural resource policy representative of the Upper Skagit Tribe emphasizes the importance of being proper stewards of the earth.  The stories and wisdom passed down generations regard tribal history but also an appreciation for nature in all its forms.

“As ancestral stewards of the landscape, the tribes of the San Juans preserved, protected and lived in harmony with the ecosystem,” Schuyler said.  “We need to take on the same values the tribes had.”

Maps of Blakely Island (Perris Larson/Seattle Pacific University)

The Upper Skagit Tribe is affiliated with the Coast Salish Tribe, but has a small saltwater footprint in Samish Bay. 

The respect for the earth runs deep in tribal stories and culture. The Coast Salish Tribe is one of many tribes that have stories of guardian spirits that are seen in wildlife.

Sketch from Loon and Deer Were Traveling: A Story of the Upper Skagit of Puget Sound (Perris Larson/Seattle Pacific University)

Blakely Island is home to a variety of animals, most notable deer and mink. 

“The Faith of a Coast Salish Nation” emphasizes the importance of guardian spirits, how they allowed people to sustain themselves and their families. In Coast Salish culture, mink is a guardian spirit that helps fishermen at sea. Deer are guardian spirits in a similar way, as deer spirits aid hunters. 

“It was not about selling trees, or mining,” Schuyler said. “It was about living and sustaining yourself.”

Schuyler believes the best way for visitors of the San Juan Islands to acknowledge the footprints of Indigenous people is to be stewards of the land, treating the land and its ecosystems with respect.

“Unfortunately we see so much degradation going on right now. We all contribute to it,” Schuyler said. “But we have an obligation to leave things better than when we found it.”

Blakely Island prepares future educators

Student-teachers, alumni reflect on their time at Blakely, how they have incorporated biology in classrooms

Sophie Hanson and Lillian Biddle gaze out onto the surrounding San Juan Islands during their trip to Blakely Island in May 2022. (Courtesy of Lillian Biddle).

For those who are wanting a teaching credential, students begin to teach a classroom toward the end of their college career, as a certain amount of hours in the classroom must be met before they obtain certification. In the state of Washington, student teachers must have a minimum of 450 hours in the classroom.

Regardless of what area and grade level education majors desire to teach, Dr. Elena Brezynski of Seattle Pacific University believes it is vital for future educators to learn biology.

“When these students become teachers, they are going to have a range of kids in that classroom,” Brezynski said. “Some who could go on to cure cancer, invent things; but they can be switched off science if their teacher is afraid of science.”

Blakely Island is only one of the many steps in this journey these future educators must take.

Sophie Hanson, a 2023 graduate and a substitute teacher for Seattle Public Schools has been able to take what she learned on Blakely Island to teaching elementary school students.

“The biggest takeaway for me was how applicable this is to kiddos,” Hanson said. “They learn about life cycles, plants and animals. Being able to know the in-depth science behind it makes me able to answer any sort of question they have.”

One day when Hanson was teaching fifth grade, the children were learning about ecosystems, specifically tide pools and it brought Hanson back to when she went to Blakely Island with Dr. Brezynski’s class in 2022. 

Lillian Biddle, a senior and student-teacher at John Hay Elementary School also went to Blakely in 2022. Biddle teaches general education in kindergarten, and K-2 special education.

“It really gave me an appreciation for science, and for teaching science that I definitely brought back into the classroom with me,” Biddle said. 

Lillian Biddle, Miss Lillian to her students, reminds her kindergarteners to look at the whiteboard in April 2024. (Perris Larson/ Seattle Pacific University).

On Blakely, students were able to see tide pools, fungi, multiple ecosystems with their own eyes rather than seeing them on a powerpoint. 

Student-teacher at McDonald International School for second and third grade, Chloe Lavigne reflects on the aspects of Dr. Brezynski’s class that has been incorporated into the students curriculum. Lavigne’s class recently had a unit on salmon that tied in with their social studies. In the class, children learned how salmon are a keystone species, a fact that Lavigne remembered from her time in Brezynski’s class as well as her time on Blakely Island. 

For Lavigne, the trip to Blakely Island showed the benefits of teaching outside of classrooms.

While observing the tide pools on Blakely Island, Chloe Lavigne comes across a purple starfish tucked into a crevice. (Courtesy of Chloe Lavigne).

“I feel like a lot of the time we get stuck in the classroom,” Lavigne said. “Sometimes it is by necessity, but I think there are lots of opportunities to get outside and have more experiential learning.”

Brezynski has been taking students to Blakely for about a decade, emphasizing the importance of teaching about the world we live in, how everything is connected. Brezynski hopes that these future educators will be able to show their students the importance of science, whether it be through a nature walk or even a class pet.

Back when they were only sophomores in college, these educators stuck their noses into tide pools. Now, they are able to tackle biology in their own classrooms with the confidence Blakely Island provided.

“Being able to know the in-depth science behind it makes me able to answer any sort of questions the kiddos have,” Hanson said.

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