A classroom is transformed as young students honor Native Americans

The Thursday before last week’s spring break, a basement classroom in Chautauqua Elementary School transformed into a stage for a play honoring Native American heritage. Through the direction of teacher Jolene McCauley, first-, second- and third-graders presented a play supporting alternative means of teaching history, creativity and cooperation.

Every three years, Chau-tauqua’s much-heralded multi-age curriculum presents this play, crafted by teacher Gerie Wilson with the help of students, parents and a children’s book about the life of Chief Seattle. 

A crowd gathered, greeted by costumed children in a room alit with lamps decorated by hand in tribal patterns. The door to McCauley’s classroom opened and two classmates arrived, each one carrying a hand-made crow. The kids operated pulleys on sticks to activate the flapping black wings and bodies of newspaper darkened by black duct tape.

The audience seemed awed to see the birds as well as costumes of beaded shell necklaces, hand-made  crowns, buttoned blankets and shimmering satin tunics. One boy sat on a tall chair made of tree limbs and softened by animal fur. Another boy carried high a collection of thin woven branches, explaining how he catches enough salmon for himself and his family. A girl spoke of the basket she held and her tribe’s tradition of creation and sharing.

“Mother Salmon, Father Salmon, Brother Salmon, Sister Salmon,” sang the kids, and then, with a jump and a rush of energy, “Leaping Salmon!”

The kids kept beat with the drums. They danced around the fake fire the infinitely creative McCauley brought to the play. They sang tribal chants. They told stories as well about the way the clan works with the weather, stories “which will one day be told to grandchildren.”

McCauley beamed. “I am really pleased with their work,” she said after the play. “I feel like what I am doing is giving them a place to become lifelong learners.”

“They were so graceful,” said Chautauqua Principal Jody Metzger. “They knew their characters so well. I felt like — in the way they moved and their intonation and the expression of their faces — that I was actually seeing tribal children.”

The kids recounted the changeover of the land. A boy explained that Chief Seattle “wanted the best for his people, and so with heavy heart” traded the land. “This is very bad news for our way of life,” said another actor. “Let us hold onto our traditions for as long as we can and celebrate our people.”

For the students, the event became a place to remember nature and a simpler lifestyle.

“It really makes you think a lot about how they got along and took care of the land and didn’t create so much war,” said Jules Vanselow, 9. “I don’t know how they were able to do it like that; I hope we find out sometime.”

Studying the Native American lifestyle encouraged Shira Stahl, 9, to think even more about nature. “When I’m at school, I don’t think about nature, but when I get home, I do, and I take care of my animals.”

Other kids mentioned how hot they felt in the costumes. One kid who preferred to work behind the scenes invented the concept of an erupting volcano. He became the one to throw little pieces of red, yellow and orange tissue over the backdrop of the great mountain.

“It was a good experience,” said Wes Peterson, father of an actor. “It brought my child Josiah’s attention to another culture. He talked a lot at home about foraging and hunting and gathering.”

“What I liked,” said Josiah’s mother Liz Pet-erson, “is the message of stewardship coming from children.”



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