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Learning about Native Americans in Washington

December 27, 2018

WASHINGTON — Zachary Fenton stood on the roof of the institute of American Indian studies with a long pole in hand, bracing for the netted ring to be tossed.

He eyed it coming down and managed to get the pole through one of the openings, symbolizing a spear hitting a turkey in flight.

The pole was then passed through the line of children behind him as they worked to get three hits and get their turkey dinner.

It’s just one of the games guests played to get a better idea of Native American culture during Thursday’s educational program, which will also be offered from noon to 3 p.m. on Friday as part of the admission. Children could also make a traditional toy and hear stories about how animals got their looks.

“We teach children about how Native American people were different because we want to foster the idea that no one culture is better, just different,” said Darlene Kascak, of the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation and the institute’s education coordinator. “Our way is to protect the resources and cherish resources. When you do take something, out of respect, you want to use every piece.”

The institute has offered educational programs when schools are on break since its inception more than 43 years ago. It averages about 130 children a day during the busy fall season, Kascak said.

She said visitors, especially children, are able to learn about 13,000 years of Connecticut Native American history and culture in a hands-on way.

The institute also offers adult programs and helps train teachers how to teach about native Americans in a culturally appropriate way.

“It’s all about breaking through those stereotypes and showing how Native people are just like everyone else but still hold on to their their traditions and beliefs,” Kascak said. “It’s just a beautiful blend.”

Asher and Aiden Ngom, who are 9 and 10 years old respectively, said they enjoyed playing the games.

“It really showed how the Native Americans had fun back in the old times,” Aiden said. “It also teaches about hunting.”

The brothers came to the institute because Asher is working on a Bear Scout badge.

He said he learned a lot, including about the different housing.

“I learned the Algonquin lived in wigwams and not teepees because the wigwams were more sturdy for the weather and the teepee you carried with you,” Asher said.

They and other visitors gathered in one of the recreated wigwams Thursday to learn about how Native Americans lived years ago, including their roles within the tribe and how they made their houses.

“At the age of 5 you pretty much had a job,” Susan Scherf, an educator at the institute, told the group. She added some of the tasks could be making flint and scaring animals away from the crops.

Kascak also entertained the crowd with stories about how animals came to look how they do and teach lessons and morals to children. The 250 stories have been passed down by word of mouth from the elders for years, though Kascak said each person might change it a little, while staying true to the lesson.

“It’s our responsibility as a storyteller to pass those on to future generations,” she said.

Kate Smolkis, of Thomaston, said she decided to bring her daughters, Trinity and Emma, because she is a Native American from New Mexico and wanted to learn more about the tribes of New England. She said it was interesting to learn about the differences and show it to her daughters.

“It’s amazing,” she said. “There’s a lot more here than I realized.”

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