Friday, March 16, 2001
Wickiups, witus and warriors: Third grade Native American Museum
Third graders at the Carlisle school had more reason than other students to be thankful for the five-day weekend last week. Two snow days and a professional day meant that the due date for their Native American projects was postponed and they had plenty of snowbound hours to keep the glue guns burning and the clay pots cooking. The results, on display at the annual Native American Museum in third grade classrooms on March 9, were a wonder -- a five-foot-tall totem pole with beautifully painted masks of birds and humans, a tepee camp with real flowing water, a Navaho art gallery complete with a "Be right back" sign and enough clay figures, drying fish, pueblos, igloos and witus to sink a hand-carved canoe.
The students and their teachers, Cindy Alhussni, Margaret Bruell, Liz Gray and Gene Stamell, worked for more than six weeks in preparation for the museum's opening, but what was on display for the visitors' enjoyment was only a small part of the children's achievement. As was clear to all the parents who asked questions of the junior curators, the months of research and in- class study of tribal societies turned the students into real experts on nearly all aspects of Native American culture.
"No," said one student. "Not all Inuits lived in igloos. The tribes who lived farther from the ice made their houses from wood and moss. Those were called karmats, not igloos."
Another boy explained that Nez Perce means "nose-pierced" in French and that they, under the leadership of their famous Chief Joseph, tried to be peaceful neighbors with the white settlers until the settlers went too far.
One befuddled parent tried hard to understand that totem poles were erected at the front of plank houses and that the bottom of the totem pole was the entryway into the home. Not just decoration, the totem pole told a magical story in carved pictures of the family who resided in the wooden house.
Each child had to learn about all of the major Native American peoples before choosing which tribe he or she would focus on. As a result, the students became familiar with the vast differences in the lifestyles and cultures of, for instance, the peaceful Hopi farmers and the warrior Creek hunters. Boys and girls were drawn to different tribes often for personal reasons. A horse-loving student was determined to study the Sioux, who built their entire lives around horses. Others were interested in pottery, or circular houses built on stilts or, for a boy who loved learning about Alaska last year in second grade, igloos and karmats and polar-bear hunting.
Listening to the children as they explained the spiritual significance of fetishes to the Zuni, the teaching power of "scare kachinas" to Hopi children and the difficulty of moving camp for buffalo- hunting Plains Indians, was delightful. Their hard work was evident and their handiwork was imaginative and whimsical (little clay eagles with yellow beaks and real claws and feathers), but what really shone was their depth of knowledge and enthusiasm about the native peoples they had studied.
© 2001 The Carlisle Mosquito