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Teaching Native American Studies By Doing

Students at Highland Hall Waldorf School in California listen to tribal oral histories and travel during their Native American studies class.

The school’s website says it’s a place “where education is a journey” and Noah Williams, who teaches history at Highland Hall Waldorf School in Northridge, California takes that seriously.

When he teaches his students about Native American history, they don’t just read out of books, they listen to the oral histories of the Inuit, Ute Mountain, Cheyenne and Pomo and end their studies with a trip to Ute Mountain Tribal Park in Towaoc, Colorado.

“Reading the myths and legends of the Pomos and Cheyennes isn’t just about introducing literature; these are stories handed down through an oral tradition. They were told and heard. So retelling them is really a lesson in listening,” Williams explains in a press release. “I ask the students to put down their pens, be present, and live in the words.”

After various lectures the students travel 15 hours by train and bus for a 3-and-a-half-day camping trip in a remote canyon where they go without electricity and running water. The students gather wood, make fires, learn cooking skills and experience a star-filled night sky surrounded by silence.

“The experience that made the deepest impression on me was when we visited one of many ancient cliff-dwelling ruins,” says Highland Hall 10th grader Casey Gardner. “First we hiked a steep path up the side of [the] canyon. The weather was hot, the rocks were unstable, and we all carried weighted backpacks filled with our belongings. Finally, we reached the ruin. It sat strong and resolute on a thin ledge overlooking the abyss. After lunch, our Ute Indian guide Rick encouraged us to have a moment of silence and take in the astounding view. To me, the silence became a living thing; one could hear and indeed even feel the silence. It made me think of an ancient Native American, probably sitting in the same spot, marveling at the same sight that I was taking in. We usually associate silence with aloneness, but being with my class, people I’ve known for most of my life, made the quiet a shared experience.”