Pupils explore native cultures


Seven-year-old Michael Bengivengo has been researching the Piscataway Indians as part of a program at St. John's Parish Day School. Sierra Love, 8, has been learning about Seminoles.

The costumes they wore on a recent morning this month showed what they had learned. Michael wore an outfit of tan felt, with long sleeves, colorful beaded fringe around the neck and a brown felt eagle on the front.

"They called this a thunderbird," he said, adding that he liked learning about Piscataway Indians because "they usually came in peace, not war."

Sierra wore a long dress with a colorful shawl around her shoulders. "They're very colorful," she said of the Seminoles. "And they also wore layers." A papoose made of felt rested on Sierra's back.

Michael, Sierra and the other second-graders at the Ellicott City school were participating in the final event of their monthslong study of Native American culture: a visit from Richard T. Clark, president of the Howard County Historical Society, and Michael Walczak, the society's executive director.

Clark showed the children his extensive collection of flags from various Native American tribes, and Walczak discussed arrowheads and other Native American artifacts that had been found in Howard County.

The students began their research into Native American culture after the school won a Teaching Tolerance Grant from the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala. The grants of up to $2,000 go to classroom teachers of kindergarten through twelfth-grade students for "implementing tolerance and youth activism projects in their schools and communities," according to the center's Web site.

At St. John's, the grant paid for a visit from a Cherokee storyteller, as well as for books and art supplies, said second-grade teacher Anne Schoenhut. St. John's Parish Day School has a preschool and a lower school. The lower school goes up to second grade; each year a new grade is added.

Schoenhut started out by letting each child choose a tribe. "That became the focus," she said.

Each child researched and created costumes (generally with the help of parents) that might have been worn by members of their tribe. Meanwhile, in art class they learned how to sew leather and make pottery. Then they chose a famous Native American and created watercolor paintings based on pictures in books.

In music class, the children learned about Native American music and dance, then taught dances to the younger pupils, Schoenhut said.

In November, storyteller Joseph Stands With Many visited the school and taught children stories and dances, Schoenhut said. He then spoke to second-graders about tolerance and understanding.

The visit from Clark and Walczak was the culmination of the program, Schoenhut said.

In an open space within the school, pupils wearing the costumes they had created sat on folding chairs. All around them were displays of the art they had created, including the watercolors and dioramas of Native American scenes. Tables in front of them held artifacts brought in by Clark and Walczak.

Standing in front of his young audience, Clark, wearing a leather vest and a lariat with turquoise, held up one flag after another and explained the symbols on them.

"Again, you see the fish and the elk, two symbols of plenty," he said, holding up the red, yellow and black flag of the Nez Perce. He told the children that the Blackfoot Indians were named for the black moccasins they wore, and he said the Cheyenne called themselves the Beautiful People.

"They had good publicists," he said.

When he had shown all the flags in his collection, the children asked questions. One child asked about wars between tribes.

"Long before we came over here, and even after we came over here, a lot of Indian tribes did not like each other at all and would often fight with each other," Clark agreed.

When Walczak stepped to the front of the room, he said, "I brought some stuff from the museum today that I'd like to show you." He held up a flattened stone and noted that it could have been an arrowhead or it could have been a scraper. "We don't know for sure," he said. As he discussed the items and how they might have been used, he gave several of them to the children to hold and pass around.

One child asked how the artifacts had been found. Walczak said a woman had recently discovered an arrowhead while gardening in her yard. The items tend to cluster around rivers and places where Native Americans had settled, he said.

As the children studied the artifacts, Sierra said she had enjoyed learning about Native American culture.

"The most interesting part was probably doing the research on my tribe and wearing my costume," she said.

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