By Tom Ganser
School traditions play an important part in fond memories of school days recalled years later, especially if they take part in a special activity that their parents also experienced.
For seventh graders at Whitewater Middle School, Native American Day on Sept. 24 was a perfect example of such a tradition.
According to Joanne Kyle, WMS Gifted and Talented Coordinator, the first Native American Day at WMS happened in 1999.
The school district’s efforts to provide students with educational experiences related to Native Americans began even earlier in 1992 as part of Pow Wows held at Starin Park and later moved to the sacred Indian Mound site in Whitewater.
The event was targeted for third and seventh graders in the district as an enrichment opportunity that enhanced the Native American studies in each of the participating grade levels, and organized by local Native American community members in conjunction with the work of Jan Berezowitz who served as the WUSD Gifted and Talented Coordinator.
When the weekend-long Pow Wows ended, the WUSD Gifted and Talented staff took responsibility for organizing the district’s own Native American Day, eventually aimed only at seventh graders due to a change in the social studies curriculum for 3rd graders.
Kyle said that the purpose of Native American Day is “to provide integrated enrichment opportunities for students beyond their usual classroom instruction and to provide first person opportunities for students to ask questions and explore topics that are of interest to them.”
Kyle added that during the Native American Day “Students receive direct exposure to the differences and similarities between cultures and receive a message of respect for each other and our common values.”
WMS principal Tanya Wojciechowicz said, “ Native Americans have such a rich and vibrant history and culture, including locally in Wisconsin and the Whitewater area. This is such a great educational, enrichment opportunity for our students, which not only enhances the 7th grade curriculum but also helps teach students how to be more culturally and globally competent.”
About 150 seventh grade students participated in Native American Day this year by visiting six different stations.
At one station, Art Shegonee spoke to students about general native culture and gave students a chance to experience and participate in native music and dance. Shegonee is a Performing Artist with the Call for Peace Drum and Dance Company of Madison. He is a member of the Menominee and Potowatomi tribes in Wisconsin, and his name is Canasa (Little Golden Eagle). As a member of the wolf clan, he is a traditional dancer in pow-wows throughout Wisconsin.
Marion and Ron Courtney from Rockton, Ill. met with students in a teepee to give students a taste of the teepee living of the Plains Indians. The Courtneys also shared information about native tools, dress and beading with the students.
James Grybush from Waukesha demonstrated the Native American craft of flintknapping. Flintknapping is the process of chipping away material from high silica stones like flint in a carefully controlled manner with special tools to produce sharp projectile points like arrowheads or tools. Grybush also shared his collection of handmade tools along with his favorite rocks and arrowheads.
Richard Grybush from Pewaukee taught students about ancient spear throwing. Students were given a chance to experience using an atlatl, or spear-thrower, a device that uses leverage to increase the velocity at which a spear travels through space.
Mark Denning from Milwaukee shared the history of the game of lacrosse and then students had great fun experiencing how to play the game that has few rules and no boundaries.
Bill Sydow, a retired 7th grade teacher WMS teacher, taught students about Native American foods. But even more memorable for the students, they were able to taste and enjoy several traditional Native American whole foods and dishes, including traditional fry bread, pure maple syrup, corn bread, trail mix granola, corn salad, buffalo stew, rabbit, salmon, wild rice, beans, “three sister” soup, squash, dried meats and venison.
Fry Bread was made by volunteers Margery Watson and Nora Kyle; the remainder of the native dishes were prepared by WMS staff members Joanne Kyle, Rochelle Ahrens and Chris Wilke.
Kyle reported that several students even requested recipes for the various dishes they sampled.
WUSD Director of Instruction Kelly Seichter said, “We are so pleased with how the day went. The event supports our district priorities nicely, helping to provide experiences and instruction that build awareness and acceptance of diversity among students and staff. We feel an event like the Native American celebration addresses the needs of the whole child and most importantly increases student engagement.”
Kyle applauded the contributions of the presenters, the volunteers, and the WMS staff members who prepared the native dishes in making the day a success. She also thanked the WMS Parent Teacher Organization for their generous donation in support of Native American Day.