March 14, 2010

Jerky, moose pole, and snake dance

Holiday school event introduces students to American Indian culture

By Klint Lowry"Last year we had a Mardi Gras theme," Schooler said. With the annual Chasco Fiesta approaching, school officials decided to go this year with a unit on American Indians. Throughout the week, each class learned about a different tribe. For Culture Night, however, the mood was a bit less academic.

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.
And:The poles, even the comical ones, represented what a good part of the Culture Night was about; true authenticity was not the goal so much as an introduction, raising appreciation and awareness for the richness of Native American culture.

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.
And:The highlight of the evening was a presentation by Indian storyteller and dancer Anthony Edwards. Dressed in ceremonial regalia, Edwards, along with Lisa Leith, gave a brief historic overview of the Cherokee tribe, and demonstrated authentic dances. Gulf Trace fifth-grader Kayla Kramer assisted, demonstrating the "fancy shawl dance."Comment:  Wow. Most schools don't admit they don't care about presenting accurate and authentic information about Indians. But this one does. Who cares if the info is false, misleading, or stereotypical?

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:

  • The totem poles sound totally phony, with not a shred of information about which tribes raised them or what they meant.

  • Navajo tacos:Navajo Fry Bread actually evolved because of access to European wheat and lard. In 1860, approximately 8,000 Navajos spent four years imprisoned at Fort Summer, New Mexico, and were given little more than white flour and lard to eat. After returning to their new reservation, the United States’ government provided them with wheat flour as part of their commodities program. Because of this, lard and wheat flour became the main ingredients in the making of Navajo Fry Bread. The Indian women had to make the best of what was often considered poor-quality rations in reservation camps and the varying availability of government-issued commodities.
  • Beef jerky:Jerky was first introduced by the South American (Peru) native tribe called the Quechua (part of the ancient Inca Empire) in 1550. The product (Ch'arki), was boned and defatted meat (deer, elk, or buffalo) cut into slices and rubbed with salt. This meat was rolled up in the animal's hide for 10-12 hours and then sun dried or smoked over fires.

    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.
  • Popcorn:The oldest evidence of Popped corn comes from The Bat Cave of West Central New Mexico. These ears have been dated to being about four thousand years old, if not older. So we have evidence that popped maize and cultivated corn was indeed, American by origin. In ancient times, grain was popped by heating sand in a pit and stirring in kernels of corn when it was quite hot. This kept the kernels in the tassel and tasted good too.

    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.
  • It's not clear who "Indian storyteller and dancer Anthony Edwards" actually is. An enrolled member of a Cherokee tribe? One of many "Cherokee" wannabes? Someone who dresses up and calls himself an "Indian storyteller" because he tells stories about Indians?

    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?

  • The fancy shawl dance was developed at Northern Plains powwows in the 1940s and 1950s. It has nothing to do with the Cherokee or Florida's Indians, although any Indian woman can practice it.

  • Finally, the so-called "snake dance" is totally false and a mockery of the genuine Hopi Snake Dance. It reinforces the idea that being Indian is something you do, not something you are. The implication is that if you dress, eat, and dance like an Indian, you're practically an Indian yourself.

  • 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)


    dmarks said...

    My main complaint is that this event did not have the involvement of area tribes. That's the way to make it really authentic.

    Giishnasi'dood miknoot said...

    I agree, local area nations shold've been represented. It'd be much more meaningful, as it is Florida.

    I've been telling people that America only wants to accept it's romanticized image of us, the stuck in the 1800's as the last vestiges of the 1680's-1890 Warrior/horse culture of the Great Plains image, rather what we do face in this day and age. When the actual definition of "genocide" was created at during the conventions at Nuremberg, to figure out what to charge the Nazis with, a cultural aspect was written into the definition... This romanticized ideology of our people goes right along with that cultural genocidal aspect. Causes one to think of the phrase, "Kill the Indian, save the man."

    m. said...

    I agree with both of the above sentiments. The ignorance surrounding local tribes in most states, especially ones that aren't considered 'Indian country', is astounding.

    (As much as I love California, this has got to be one of THE WORST states for this kind of thing. Surprisingly enough, everyone thinks this place is the epicenter of anti-racist progress and multicultural acceptance. Not so surprising, none of those who think this are Indians. Hell, even I acknowledge my own - Indians from out-of-state - outnumber those who call this their homeland.)