By Klint Lowry
This was most apparent in the school cafeteria, the center of activity. A collection of brightly colored "totem poles" filled the stage. The ranged in size and style, almost all included Indian motifs, though many took creative liberties. One of the poles was topped with a stuffed moose head wearing sunglasses lined with flashing green lights.
On one end of the cafeteria, parents and kids got to do crafts, and on the other end have a "Navajo taco" dinner, made with flour tortillas rather than the traditional fry bread; again the emphasis was less on historical perfection and more in fostering multicultural curiosity.
Other snacks came with educational tidbits to chew on. When guests came up to buy a chunk of beef jerky, they also got to read about its origin, how jerky was invented by Sioux women as a way to have meat that traveled easily and could be stored a long time. At the popcorn stand, there was an explanation of the ancient Indian myth that explains why popcorn pops.
Why couldn't the school inspire the kids' curiosity with accurate and authentic information? Because real Indian culture and history is too boring? Or too negative and depressing--all that genocide and stuff? Or maybe it's too much work to actually open a book or search the Web for honest information?
What the students learned
As regular readers know, I oppose this kind of potpourri-style "lesson" about Indians. It probably makes Indians seem like one big, happy family. Like a colorful party at a frat house with decorations and snacks.
A quick survey of this school's Culture Night:
In South America, the Native Americans ate sun-dried venison and buffalo called tassajo, which was made with strips of meat dipped in maize flour, sun and wind dried, and then tightly rolled up into balls. North American Cree Indians mixed berries and suet (fat) with pounded cooked meat and pressed into concentrated small cakes to make pemmican.
This American connection was maintained and in the fifteenth and sixteenth century, the Aztec Indians used the ear of corn as well as popped corn in various cultural contexts, ceremonies and even dances. They were, curiously enough, also used as ornamentation.
His regalia looks reasonably authentic, and it's always good to have a real Indian present. But why is someone telling Florida students about the Cherokee of Oklahoma and North Carolina? Why not get someone to tell them about Florida's Indians instead?
Summing it up, we have a phony snake dance, phony moose pole, and phony origin for beef jerky. We also have Navajo tacos and a fancy shawl dance, which are recent additions to Indian culture and don't represent its history. And we have some sort of Cherokee teaching Florida students about the powwow culture of the Northern Plains. What a mish-mash.
The teachers' hidden agenda?
Perhaps not coincidentally, these Floridians are among the people who stereotype and offend Indians at the Chasco Fiesta and Pensacola Beach Mardi Gras Parade. It wouldn't surprise me if the teachers are trying to legitimize these travesties. If they convince students that being Indian is like a Halloween party, the kids will support the events.
"Look," the teachers may say, "Indian life is all about colorful costumes and displays. Therefore, the phony fiesta Indians are just as informative as real Indians. Therefore, quit criticizing us for our stereotypical beliefs and attitudes. By pretending to be Indians, we're honoring them."
For more on the subject, see Seeing Indians Is Believing and "Hatchets, Feathers, and the Color Red."
Below: "Lisa 'Kamama' Leith and Anthony Edwards lead Gulf Trace Elementary School students on a Snake Dance during a presentation on Cherokee culture, part of the school's American Indian-themed open house night." (Klint Lowry/Suncoast)