PORT BYRON, N.Y. - Fourth graders in New York study Native American history and traditions as part of the state education curriculum. While most teachers rely on conventional books and movies, three teachers here are using a different approach. About 15 years ago, teachers from A. A. Gates Elementary School in Port Byron, Nancy Murinka, Nancy Abdo and Ann Kreiling, created a lesson unit that culminates in a re-enactment of an Iroquois council meeting.
The actual "council meeting" takes place annually around the Thanksgiving holiday. Students and teachers, who also participate in the mock meeting, gather and begin with a traditional thanksgiving address to the Nation. Each student chooses a clan or pre-settlement tribe to represent in the council. Since this is the ending of a month of study, students share information they have learned about the various clans and tribes with each other. Then the students get to the actual voting of the council meeting; the issue at hand is whether or not to trade with the European settlers. The re-enactment ends with a storytelling session. Students act out several legends and traditional lore they have learned the past month.
The re-enactment is only part of the month-long lesson.
Students read literature by Native authors, including Joseph Bruchac, Abenaki, and study the differences between European and Native interpretations, in particular in stories involving the wolf. "In the European traditions, wolves are portrayed as scary and monstrous, yet in the Indian tradition wolves often serve as a symbol of strength and protection." Murinka said. Students discuss these differences and traditions associated with these stories.
Onondaga painter Eli Thomas works with the teachers, presenting both Native history and art. A member of the Wolf Clan, he features a wolf in all of his paintings, sometimes hidden in the design. He also works with students on traditional paintings and craft. Students create native feasts and play traditional games along with their studies.
"This is a wonderful program that the students really love" Murinka said. "They learn about Indian culture and enjoy themselves at the same time."