The first-graders at St. George Catholic School have been learning a version of the buffalo dance, a Native American call for a successful hunt, for the past 20 years as part of their Thanksgiving celebration at the school, said Michelle Ventola, a first-grade teacher at the school.
“It’s something the kids have heard about from older siblings. We’ve been doing it so long, so they ask about it,” she said.
But many of the traditional games — tossing a turkey, for example — were more symbolic than educational. So the school decided to take a look at it and tweak the program.
“The kids loved it, but it wasn’t integrated into the curriculum,” Assistant Principal Cheri Gioe said. “I talked to the principal, Jack Nelson, about it, and we decided that since we study Native American populations as part of the curriculum, we should pick a couple of tribes indigenous to Louisiana and create activities that would reinforce those lessons.”
So for this year’s Thanksgiving celebration that was held Nov. 21, they picked authentic practices of the Houma and Chitimacha tribes, Ventola said, and rather than pinning the feather on the turkey, the students did what those tribes traditionally would do day-to-day to live.
The students spent the day rotating stations that included making real butter by shaking jars of heavy cream and shucking corn.
“We wanted to grind corn, but we couldn’t find enough grinders,” Gioe said.
The students also made beaded necklaces, clay pots and miniature woven mats, all in keeping with practices that would have been everyday occurrences in a tribal village.
“Instead of prizes we gave them for tossing a turkey into a basket as we have done in the past, we are sending them home with the things they made themselves — the necklace, the clay pot when it dries, the butter. We’re keeping it cool until they go home. I think it’s more meaningful that way, and it’s reinforcing the lessons they learned in class,” she said.
Ventola paused to watch the Native American naming ceremony, set up just after the weaving station.
“We had each child pick a noun and a verb, and that is their Native American name,” she said.
The students sat around a “fire” made of red crepe paper and received their names, which were then written on leather patches that were strung onto their necklaces.
Ventola called to first-grader Raging Bobcat, more commonly known as Reese Perron, who talked about what she has learned in the Native American unit.
“I thought all Indians lived in teepees, but they don’t,” Perron said.
“We made a mini log house; we made a wattle and daub wall. We did a lot of these crafts in class,” Ventola said.
Another first-grader, Alex Politz, also known as Swimming Bird, talked about his favorite craft, boat making. The real tribes would have used logs carved out in the middle, but that was too big for the classroom, “so we cut out the middle of a toilet paper roll,” he said.
Ken Dixon, representing the Choctaw tribe, gave a presentation to each group about the 28 federally recognized tribes that originally populated Louisiana, Ventola said, and taught them a native dance.
But the finale was the most anticipated aspect by far as 120 first-graders stood facing each other, making up the sides of a giant square that stretched around half of a basketball court, and performed the buffalo dance for their parents and the teachers who were watching.
“They’ve all been practicing separately, and are doing it together for the first time today,” she said.
All went according to plan as the children got a more authentic Native American experience for Thanksgiving.
“They are having so much fun,” said Jen Parfait, a parent serving as “Big Chief,” the person in charge of a crew of parents who created and implemented the stations.
“It was a lot of work, but a lot of fun, too,” she said. “Honestly, it wasn’t as much work as we were doing before when we had the games. The decorating it took to make things look like ‘Thanksgiving,’ that made it a lot more work. We had something like 15 game stations,” Parfait said.
Gioe said they put a lot of thought into what message they wanted to convey with the activities, and the parents followed through in a huge way.
“They did the majority of the work here. We have such a great group of parents,” she said, adding thanks for the efforts of parents Jenny Vargas, Allison Fox and Kamryn Shutt, along with first-grade teachers Ventola and Beth Loewe.