4 minute read

Students in Ms. Strawn’s first grade class are exploring real Native American history and traditions at the beginning of a season that typically twists that history.

Using a guide developed by the Native American Student Services in Oklahoma City Public Schools, students are going through a series of lessons about what was more likely the situation when English Separatists settled in what is now known as New England.

And, it’s not cutting faux vests from grocery bags to caricature Native American plains tribe’s buckskin clothes. Neither does it involve making odd-looking black hats purported to be “pilgrim” attire.

Attentive students

The OKCPS Heronville Elementary School class listened closely as their teacher read from the children’s book The Legend of the Indian Paintbrush by Tomie de Paola.

The book shows the acceptance in Native American culture of unique personalities and the value of unique gifts in each individual.

Students then had an opportunity to give their own interpretation of the story by painting their interpretation of the story.

Camila

First grader Camila Corrales proudly showed me the painting she made after hearing the story.

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First grader Camila Corrales shows her painting made after hearing The Legend of the Indian Paintbrush book. Brett Dickerson/Okla City Free Press

When asked what she was learning about Native Americans and English settlers that we celebrate at Thanksgiving, she became very earnest and direct.

“The Native Americans helped the settlers so they could eat,” she said. “They taught them how to fish and grow crops like corn. The helped the settlers.”

Empathy

It is one lesson in a series of lessons designed to help students better understand and empathize with true Native American culture and the existing Native American civilization in the Americas when settlers arrived from Europe in the 1500s.

“Overall, for the last couple of weeks we’ve been talking about what we think Thanksgiving is and the real thing,” Strawn told Free Press. “And, they have shockingly been able to make that contrast and really empathize with the way that it really happened.”

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Alicia Strawn, first grade teacher at Herronville Elementary School in OKCPS. Brett Dickerson/Okla City Free Press

The lesson Thursday centered on The Legend of Indian Paintbrush was designed to show students how Native American culture values each person’s gifts and individuality.

Strawn said the lesson is “based on that story and understanding what it means to have a gift. Everybody’s gifts are different.”

She said the guide has been “extremely resourceful, but in a reasonable way to learn about the culture in a respectful way.”

A solution

One of the staff in the Native American Student Services department, Rochell Werito, said that this time of year it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by so many stereotypes of those tribes already in place for centuries before European settlers arrived. And, it’s frustrating to hear vague myths about “pilgrims” and their drab clothing.

“Frustrating as it is, we thought instead of saying there’s a problem, let’s give them a solution,” said Werito.

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Dr. Star Yellowfish (L) and Rochell Werito developed the new guide for elementary teachers. Brett Dickerson/Okla City Free Press

So, they went to work on the guide (embedded below) that took about a year to develop the lessons that teach the actual Thanksgiving story of how the Wampanoag tribe and the English settlers.

“They help them survive, they taught them how to crop and hunt and they really supported them,” she said.

“They were people coming in as strangers.”

“And a part of our culture is to help people and to give back and be kind, to be a human being.”

Supportive leadership

Dr. Star Yellowfish, Director of Native American Student Services for OKCPS, has coordinated the efforts to provide more lesson materials for teachers who are always pressed for time.

“Our district, our leadership, was very supportive in publishing this material,” said Yellowfish.

“I think what helps is having open-minded, supportive leadership, that’s what’s helpful,” she told us.

Large representation

Yellowfish said the fact that OKCPS has such a big and diverse Native American representation in the student body makes a difference and perhaps provides some “muscle” when she is asking for support.

There are over 3,000 Native American students in OKCPS, the largest district in the state with around 43,000 students total. There are 39 tribes recognized in Oklahoma, but OKCPS has 88 tribes represented in the student body, said Yellowfish.

Oklahoma History guide

The latest product of the department is a guide for Oklahoma History teachers.

Werito and Yellowfish said that the guide was far more involved because of the complexities of the Oklahoma History objectives which cover the tribes that existed from ancient times and even before the removal of the southern tribes to what is eastern Oklahoma today.

After two years in development that guide is now out and available below.


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