A group of 16 kindergartners in Burton Valley teacher Cate Micallef’s class sat attentively on the classroom carpet one recent morning as LPIE instructor Kathy Biro stood before them in front of a colorful map of the United States.
Pointing to New York, Biro asked the class if any of them remembered the name of the Native American tribe they had learned about from that state.
Little hands shot up around the class. “The Mohawks!” answered one student. “And what do you know about the Mohawks?” Biro asked the class. “They live in longhouses!” said another child.
Biro continued her quiz, asking the class if they remembered the name of the tribe from Tennessee. More enthusiastic hands went up. “The Cherokees!” said one kindergartner. When she asked what they knew about the Cherokee tribe, one boy raised his hand and said, “They used blow guns to hunt!”
The LPIE instructor continued her trip around the map, pointing out some more locations where three other Native American tribes – the Blackfeet, the Pomos and the Hopis – lived.
Biro’s visit to the class was the last of three lessons on Native American history and culture that LPIE provides to kindergarten classes across all four elementary schools. During the classes, students learn about five different Native American tribes and their customs, way of life and traditions.
“It’s introducing them to a culture many of them haven’t seen before without using stereotypes,” says Biro.
After Biro reviewed the names of the tribes with the class, she asked the children about events in their life that they celebrate, such as holidays, birthdays and weddings. The class talked about how they celebrate these events with special clothing, food, dancing or other customs.
“The Native Americans had celebrations too!” Biro told the class, noting that Native American men got more dressed up than the women and did the dancing in their festivities.
She then showed the class different colorful bead and shell necklaces that tribes wore for their celebrations and asked volunteers to come up and try them on. She also had actual masks and musical instruments that Native Americans used during their festivals to show the children.
The students then got to put on their own pow wow. Biro gave each of the children their own Native American musical instrument and led them in a drum circle around the room. With the instruments made from items such as dried out gourds, deer skin and turtle shells, the children got to see first hand that the Native Americans used everything around them (“They are our first recyclers!” says Biro).
After the pow wow, the students sat at their tables to do a sand art project where they decorated Native American symbols.
During the hour-long interactive class, the young students got to actually see and touch Native American artifacts and were able to experience some of their traditions. They were constantly engaged and paying rapt attention to the instructor – no small feat for a young kindergarten class.
“The lesson is perfectly designed,” says Kindergarten teacher Micallef. “There’s a little bit of activity, some listening, and more activity.”
When they were finished, the students loved showing off their works of Native American art. And hopefully, they walked out of the class with a better understanding and respect for a culture that is often forgotten.