17:34 PM

Coming Full Circle

Student creates life-size mural to honor Native American heritage

Despite a childhood of being moved from school to school, Nevaeh Brinston knew she wanted to leave a legacy in one place before graduation. 

Now, as a sophomore at Walker-Hackensack-Akeley High School, she can say she’s truly making her mark – literally and figuratively.

It’s Nevaeh’s concept and creativity that will be seen in the halls of the high school for years to come after spearheading a wall mural project and raising awareness of her rich Native American heritage.

Bryn Hatten, high school science teacher at WHA and a part of Sourcewell’s Equity Advocates Leadership Cohort, says wheels began turning when she and fellow members of the school staff equity team explored ways to honor and recognize National Native American Heritage Month in November. 

With plenty of white walls serving as blank canvases throughout the building, the idea of a mural was discussed. Art teacher Aimee Bouchard says one of her students, Nevaeh, had been designing a piece of Native American art that could be the perfect addition.

Nevaeh’s drawing – now a life-size mural – depicts a large medicine wheel hanging from a lanyard.

The medicine wheel, also known as the Sacred Hoop, has been used by generations of Native American tribes for health and healing.

Many tribes interpret the medicine wheel differently. Each of the four directions (north, east, west, and south) are typically represented by a distinctive color, such as black, red, yellow, and white, which – for some – stand for the human races and represent various spiritual animals. The medicine wheel also signifies the cycle of life: being born and growing up, to sharing your wisdom to the people around you, and passing your knowledge to the next generation, and repeat.

Nevaeh says she learned much of what she knows about the medicine wheel and other cultural practices from her grandmother, a Lakota elder.

“It was pretty unexpected,” Nevaeh says of being asked to spearhead the project. “Ms. Bouchard asked me, and I was like, ‘sure, I have nothing to do.’ After we had a meeting, I brought up the idea of doing something where a lot of people could participate.”

The concept of having students contribute to the mural with their individual handprints was born.

“Everyone can put on a handprint,” Nevaeh adds, “because handprints are like memories or a path in life. And having them put on their handprint in a certain color, that truly means something, is what the medicine wall represents.”

With the help of Nevaeh and WHA Indian Education Director Janelle Johnson, a curriculum and lesson plan was created surrounding the project, delving into what a medicine wheel represents in the Native American culture – specifically the Lakota and Ojibwe cultures.

At the culmination of the lesson, students were invited to, literally, have a hand in the project. 

Nearly 100 hands of all sizes – ranging from those of elementary students through high school and a few staff – are represented on the larger-than-life medicine wheel medallion.

“Some people didn’t understand the message behind it,” Nevaeh explains, “so we left, right by it, a paper that tells all about the colors and what the medicine wheel represents. There’s more to the message which I want to get to so that more people can understand when they see it.”

“A lot of little kids pass by the wall and are like ‘It’s so pretty. What is it though?,’” she continues. “So, if a little kid is having a hard time understanding it, I at least want the older kids to understand more. That mural on the wall is going to be there for a long time. So those little kids, once they grow up, will be able to read the wall and try to understand it. Most of the murals we have here at school are just drawings, but they don’t truly represent something deeper than the medicine wheel.”

Hatten agrees that much of the artwork throughout the elementary and high school doesn't fully represent the student body, of which between 30-35% in grades 6-12 are Indigenous.

“There isn’t a lot of representation in that art, which is ironic,” she says. “We have these discussions in the equity team about how we can make all of our students see themselves in their school. How do we get them to walk down the hall and feel represented in the imagery they see and the attitudes they experience from their teachers and peers?”

Rachel Logan, an education consultant at Sourcewell, says the mural and WHA’s work to put equity projects into action is inspiring. Logan says she has had the opportunity to work alongside Hatten on the Equity Advocates Leadership Cohort and has witnessed her passion for making all students feel welcome, seen, and heard.

“This story is such a beautiful example of what it means to create an inclusive school environment,” Logan says. “Student voice, choice, leadership, and representation are woven into every part of this story. The variety of equity programs at Sourcewell work to support these kinds of efforts that keep students’ unique identities and histories central to their school experience.”

To learn more about Sourcewell’s equity work, resources, and programs, visit mn.sourcewell.org/education/equity.