But this ceremony, held on the Tulalip Tribes' reservation, was in honor of the students in the tribes' Construction Trades Center, which has now been recognized by the state as an approved pre-apprenticeship program. It's the first time a tribal program in the United States has achieved this distinction.
For many of the students graduating, the diploma symbolizes not just a certificate of accomplishment but a door to a new life.
Starting with blessing and song in the native Lushootseed language, the ceremony included speeches from tribal leaders, lunch and some good-natured ribbing of the students from their instructor.
To encourage the graduates to seize the opportunity to make a new life, Tulalip Vice Chairman Les Parks recalled his own experience learning construction in a similar tribal program in the 1970s, followed by a career running a construction company.
“You guys need to take advantage of what's been given to you by Tulalip,” Parks said. “If you love what you're doing in life, it isn't a job.”
The Construction Trades Center is in an old Boeing manufacturing building. Students learned the basics of the trade: carpentry, framing, plumbing, drywall installation, wiring, concrete work, finishes — everything needed on a job site.
Longtime instructor Mark Newland brought in representatives from unions and job placement organizations to talk to the students, and all the classes are accredited through Edmonds Community College.
For the first time, this year the program offered Edmonds' entire Construction Industry Trades curriculum over a four-month period: seven classes plus certifications for First Aid, flagging and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's 10-hour certificate.
Each student also built a personal project. Among them were shelves carved with a Seattle Seahawks logo that is chewing on a tiny Denver Bronco, a sewing table with extendable shelves and a table with a glass-and-tile surface.
Newland also works to inculcate a strong work ethic in his students.
“People realize getting up at 7 a.m. and going to work is kind of fun,” Newland said.
This year also marks the first time the program was run and funded by the Tulalip Tribes through the Tribal Employment Rights Office, with grants from the Tulalip Tribes Charitable Fund and the state Department of Transportation.
The employment rights office is used by many tribes to offer preference in hiring to tribal members for work performed on reservations. It took over after federal grant money dried up, said director Teri Gobin, and the office is looking at possible ways to expand beyond construction — perhaps solar energy, green building or commercial driver licensing.
The Construction Trades Center program is open to members of any Native American tribe. Other tribes across the nation were looking at replicating the Tulalip program on their own reservations, Gobin said.
“We're looking at where the program will go in the future, and the sky's the limit,” Gobin said.
In the final days of the course, students learned about residential energy efficiency from Randy Sibley from Edmonds Community College, who was the original instructor for the Tulalip program.
The objective for the day was to set up a blower door in a detachable frame over one of the office doors, then to use a duct blaster and manometer to measure whether there are any leaks in the ducts.
The next day, the students would do the same on an actual work site, a house under construction nearby.
After securing a canvas tarp to the frame and attaching a flexible tube to the blaster and the door, Sibley gave the manometer to Raymond Rhaume, while another student operated the fan.
Rhaume, 30, had fun with it, calling out pressure readings in an increasingly dramatic tone: “18! 19! 20!” Then the tube detached, and they had to start over.
Later in class, Sibley instructed them how to fill out the state energy audit forms they'll be required to do on each work site.
Michael Martin, who took the class alongside his mother, Delores Lafferty, both of whom are Oglala Sioux from South Dakota, said that the class has given him a new direction.
Before, Martin said, “I just worked random jobs, but it was tough because I didn't have the skill set.”
Now, he said, he plans to attend junior college in the fall and focus on construction management or energy efficiency.
Rhaume, who is of Yakama descent, took the class with his older brother, Israel “Scott” Rhaume.
“I came to the class because he's my brother, just getting out of prison, and I wanted to support him,” Raymond Rhaume said.
Scott Rhaume, 32, who is on probation after serving time for a firearms offense, said that taking the class was a chance to change his environment and focus on a new life.
“This is definitely the best decision I made so far,” he said.
Scott Rhaume emphasized this at graduation Friday, when students were invited to speak. He told more than 100 tribal members and guests in the audience how he started learning plumbing and construction while in prison and decided to make a fresh start when he got out.
He thanked Newland and the Tulalip Tribes for the program.
“I never really did anything like this,” he said, tearing up. “This program really helped me. Thanks to my little brother for showing up for me.”
Chris Winters: 425-374-4165; firstname.lastname@example.org.
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