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Lifting Up Indigenous Stories

Introducing the Global Ethic to Kinds

Lifting Up Indigenous Stories

by Vicki Garlock

Towards a Global Ethic – An Initial Declaration put forth by the Parliament of the World’s Religions in 1993 provides important guidelines for achieving a sustainable and just world. But if we hold any hope of transforming those principles into reality, we absolutely have to start with kids. I’m betting that most kids will never actually read the Declaration, but there are several statements in the document itself that pertain to the education of children around the world.

Article III specifically states that young people must learn that 1) violence is an inappropriate means of settling differences; 2) property must be used to serve the common good; and 3) words, thoughts, and deeds should align with truth. While there are an infinite number of ways to begin addressing these lofty aims, one of the avenues Jubilee! Community Church has taken is to lift up indigenous peoples – specifically those groups that lived on the land we now inhabit.

Here are a few ideas for your consideration.

Promoting Awareness

Several years ago, the North American Interfaith Network (NAIN) gathering was held in Saskatchewan, Canada. Before every plenary session and meal they welcomed us to the land of the First Nations. It didn't take much time, but it was amazingly effective in raising awareness. At no point during those three days could I forget that it was an honor to be in that place.

To promote this level of awareness in children, first find out what tribes populated your area. Then create opportunities to remind the kids that this land was originally inhabited by those people. Talk about who they were, how they lived, and what they believed. History textbooks are notoriously outdated when it comes to promoting an inclusive narrative. Don’t wait for the schools to catch up. Get started now.

Guest Speakers

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While any effort is better than none, hosting someone from your local indigenous tribe can have a huge impact on kids. Instead of simply hearing or reading about indigenous people, this approach gives kids an opportunity to hear Native stories told in Native voices. Western North Carolina, where Jubilee! is located, was originally inhabited by the Cherokee. About 15,000 of them were driven west in the 1830s during the Trail of Tears, but a small percentage (fewer than 1,000) remained hidden in the mountains. They now form the tribe known as the Eastern Band of Cherokee, and they reside on a land trust called the Qualla Boundary.

When members of the Eastern Band visit our Sunday School classes, the kids are riveted. Kids have a reputation for never wanting to sit still and listen, but they will sit motionless, for the better part of an hour, during these presentations. It’s as if they can feel the wisdom in the room. One of our recent guests played a Native flute and told stories about growing up on the land. He talked about the animals he hunted in his youth and told an incredible story of watching a deer lay down his life, voluntarily, at his grandfather's feet. During these types of events, kids get to see first-hand how Natives dress and talk, and how connected they are to the land we now share. The knowledge they have acquired in school comes alive and they are now able to pair the tribal name with a human face.

Books

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Everyone who interacts regularly with kids should own at least one book by Joseph Bruchac, an unparalleled preserver of Native heritage. His works have appeared in over 500 publications, and in 1999 he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers' Circle of the Americas.

Native American Animal Stories (Fulcrum Publishing, 1992, with Michael J. Caduto) is one of my favorite Bruchac books. It includes stories about creation, celebration, vision, and survival, and as the title suggests, the animals are the main characters in every narrative. I especially like "Rabbit Dance," a Mohawk tale about the rabbits teaching the hunters how to show gratitude for the rabbits' sacrifice, and a Papago tale entitled "How the Butterflies Came to Be."

The Girl Who Helped Thunder (Sterling, 2008, with son James Bruchac) is also a must-have. In this book, the stories – which cover all sorts of topics – are categorized by region (Northeast, Southeast, Great Plains, Northwest, and so on).

Activities

Joseph Bruchac is also the author of two remarkable books that include experiential activities for kids. Keepers of the Earth (Fulcrum Publishing, 1997, also with Michael J. Caduto) features more than 20 stories from various regions in the U.S. and southern Canada. Each story is followed by discussion questions and hands-on activities. The activities are designed to get kids outdoors, to help them appreciate the wonders of the natural world, and to teach them about our amazing ecosystems. Chapter 2 is written directly for educators. It includes practical, helpful tips about re-telling the stories in a meaningful way, keeping educational opportunities child-centered, and adapting group activities to a particular set of kids.

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Hands down, the best book for Native games is Joseph Bruchac's Native American Games and Stories (Fulcrum Publishing, 2000, also written with his son James). This book provides easy-to-understand instructions and illustrations for ball games and other popular games like Hubbub and Moccasin. Bruchac has a profound understanding of the power and importance of games as social tools. He also includes some of the legends that underlie the games. The final chapter includes games that enhance sensory awareness – an important skill set for Natives trying to survive on the land while also living in community – and one that may be waning in our noisy, technological, cell-phone-driven society.

Crafts

I use a number of Native stories in my interfaith curriculum at Jubilee!, which means I’ve have also developed age-appropriate crafts to go with them. Here are two examples you are free to use.

Loo-Wit: the Fire-Keeper

  Photo: Vicki Garlock

Photo: Vicki Garlock

This is a popular story, and many versions can be found on the internet. It tells the story of two brothers whose fighting split their tribe into two constantly-arguing factions. Fed up, the Great Spirit takes away their fire, making their lives miserable. Eventually the people recognize the error of their ways and plead with the Great Spirit to help them. The Great Spirit asks Loo-Wit to rekindle their fires and offers her eternal youth as a reward for her efforts. Soon, however, the two brothers begin arguing about who will marry Loo-Wit. The Great Spirit then turns the brothers into two mountains, and places Loo-Wit between them to keep the peace. Today, those mountains are known as Mount Hood, Mount St. Helens, and Mount Adams.

For this craft, the kids cut or tear recycled paper grocery bags into the shapes of the three mountains and use glue sticks to attach them to the background paper. I then give them a fire template to color and add to their image.

How Three Tribes Became One People

I found this story in Wisconsin Indian Literature: Anthology of Native Voices, edited by Kathleen Tigerman (Univ. of WI Press, 2006). In the story, three tribes (the Chippewa, Ottawa, and Potawatomi) were constantly at war, and many young warriors had died as a result. One day, the Chippewa chief, grieving over the loss of his ten sons, decides to walk west, seeking a place to die.

He comes upon a tree that has five roots – one heading in each direction and one that descends into the earth. The tree also has five branches – one heading in each direction and one that ascends to the sky. Sitting under the tree, the Chippewa chief begins to feel more at peace. Soon, the Ottawa chief, grieving over the loss of his ten sons, arrives at the same tree for the same reasons. The Potawatomi chief follows close behind. The three chiefs soon realize they have much in common, including their inconsolable grief after years of war. They decide to return to their homelands and promote the idea of peace with the other tribes. The story ends with the all tribespeople coming together at the tree for a feast and celebration of their new-found harmony.

  Photo: Vicki Garlock

Photo: Vicki Garlock

Any tree craft can work with this story, but I have the kids create a tree that looks like the one it describes. One, long pipe cleaner serves as the trunk. Then, the kids wrap two ½-pieces of pipe cleaner near the base to make the four roots going in each direction. Next, they wrap two ½-pieces of pipe cleaner near the top to make the four branches going in each direction. To finish the tree, kids punch small holes in leaf templates and add them to the branches.

Conclusion

Toward a Global Ethic – An Initial Declaration is a powerful document that promotes compassion for one another and peace for our world. But if we want those words and those ideals to have a chance at becoming reality, we have some work to do! As always, I make the case that we need to start with our kids. Lifting up the culture, language, and history of indigenous peoples is one piece in this process. Luckily, it’s also something kids really enjoy.

 

Header Photo: Pxhere