Learning Native American culture through art: Olympia school hosts cedar flute workshop

On Thursday, 10-year-old Genevieve Nguyen told her mom she had “the best day ever” at the Olympia Waldorf School.

The private school’s nearly 30 fourth- and fifth-grade students took a two-day workshop where they got to carve full-size Native American cedar flutes and learn how to play them.

“It was really fun,” said Nguyen, a fifth-grader. “I think they look really nice.”

The school has about 155 students, and has operated in Prairie Hall in East Olympia since 1985. Its philosophy is part of an international education movement that includes more than 1,000 Waldorf schools in the world, according to Marjorie Rehbach, dean of education.

“It’s a holistic education,” she said. “It’s developmentally based. ... It’s multi-sensory.”

So instead of just reading about Native American tribes and culture, the Waldorf school’s teachers organized the workshop, which was led by Native American flutist Peter Ali of Bellingham and woodworkers Tom and Lily Stewart of Shelton, who own Stellar Flutes. The workshop cost about $90 a student, and parents at the school made it happen, according to fifth-grade teacher Sweekriti Apple.

Ali, 57, teaches part time for the Northwest Indian College on the Lummi Reservation. In addition to performing at concerts and events around the region, he’s led flute-making workshops for tribes and schools allover Western Washington.

“I do workshops every year at Folklife,” he said.

Tom Stewart is a lifelong woodworker who began carving flutes about 20 years ago. A few years ago, he and his daughter’s company began offering unfinished flute kits. The holes are drilled and the instrument is tuned, but the kits are given to people to carve the flute’s final shape, sand it and personalize it with paint, woodburning and accessories.

It takes about eight hours to finish a flute, Stewart said.

“This is a serious project,” Lily Stewart added. “We’re here to guide them, but they are creating these to play.”

Ali began playing flute about 15 years ago.

“I don’t read music; I’m self-taught,” he said. “How we play traditionally is we play it from the heart.”

His heritage is Berber from Morocco on his dad’s side, and his mom is Italian, Spanish and a descendent of the Yaqui, Puma and Mayan tribes.

“I’m multicultural,” he said.

During the workshop last week, Ali talked about how playing the flute helped him overcome some major struggles in life, including a stressful divorce and battle with cancer.

“They’re more than just a piece of wood,” he said. “It’s medicine. … The fact is this almost went away.”

Nine-year-old Gryphan Borso said he enjoyed the workshop, especially using the woodworking tools.

The fourth-grader said he was surprised how easy the flute was to learn how to play.

“I really like it,” Borso said. “I think that I might give it to my mom or dad.”