New York City Fourth Graders Study Lenape Culture, Learn Respect

New York City fourth graders learn about the Lenape and gain new respect for the Native American culture.

If most non-Natives know only Tonto, the local sports mascot, and a full-voiced “Geronominoooo!”as their key Indian country reference points, that’s partly because television and film have been their primary educators when it comes to all things Indian. Schools rarely teach Native American life in a pre-European historical context. Too often, school textbooks reduce the original people of this country to naïve pacifists who rescued the Pilgrims, who were violent impediments to Western expansion, and victims of the Trail of Tears.

According to New York City teacher Michelle Owens, who has taught at PS 87 William T. Sherman School for 11 years, a more thoughtful critique of “what they think they know about history and what the true history is” comes up every year. Before learning about Henry Hudson, the young Manhattanites she teaches learn about the matrilineal, communal Lenape groups who lived throughout New Jersey, eastern Pennsylvania, and parts of Delaware and Connecticut, as well as southeastern New York state. Students also learn how the Lenape were displaced by European settlers. In Owens’ class and in fellow fourth grade teacher Joy Franjola’s room, students present work on the Lenape to parents in a two class museum they create to honor, celebrate and understand Lenape life prior to—and independent of—European life in America.

This year, one of those students, 9-year-old Max Jacobs, created a video installation examining Lenape farming and fishing because he says he, “thought a video would be kind of interesting.” He learned much more than ways to hunt, trap, and gather more than 100 wild foods. “The white man took their land,” he says, and they ended up in Oklahoma. I don’t think it’s really fair, because the Lenape couldn’t read what they were signing, and the Lenape didn’t believe in owning the land.”

For Charlotte Seifert, 9, studying the hunting, fishing, and farming techniques of Lenape people enabled her to have some rather sophisticated fun with her family. “My dad’s a vegetarian,” she explains, “and I thought it would be fun for him to learn about killing animals.” She laughs, then grows thoughtful and adds, “They only killed as much as they needed, and the extra food they would store.” People who now dominate the area that once belonged to the Lenape, she says, “consume way more, and then our food goes bad and is thrown away.”

Both classes were working on their museum during Thanksgiving, which presented an opportunity for them to reflect on the holiday. Erik Fatzinger, 10, studied Lenape tools and weapons and says that now, when he thinks about Thanksgiving, “I think, not about the Lenape, but, thank God the Pilgrims were able to live, thanks to the Indians, or we wouldn’t be here. I also think about people trying to wipe out the Indians because they thought they looked like savages, but they saved this country. But they still wiped them out. It’s sad.” Classmates Hannah Turner, Layla Shapiro, and Remi Williamson, all of whom are 9 years old, nod in agreement as Erik speaks.

The young learners are also excited about lighter topics, like budding 10-year-old fashionista Emily Hobbs’ interest in fringe since studying Lenape clothing. Isabel Podolsky, 9, also enjoyed the process of learning, saying, “It was fun to go to research sites. I was able to write a full report that helped me learn a lot about Lenape Indian culture.”

One thing Isabel says she learned is that, “The English drove them out to reserves in Oklahoma and Canada. There’s not that many in this area anymore.” She and the other students have developed a better appreciation of contemporary Lenape life through their study of the past. Isabel shares that many Lenape live in Pennsylvania today and adds, “I think we should give them respect, but not enough other people do.” Emily agrees with her and says, “Yes, they’ve given us their land so we can survive. I think more people should know. Only the fourth grade knows about it. Not enough parents know about the Lenape.”

Daniel Eyny, 9, nods as his classmate speaks. Then he says, “I think not enough people respect or learn about the Lenape Indians. I think the parents need to go to school to learn that.” Then he says the one thing that all these young learners seem to have grasped: “We should be thankful to them.”