Tom “Strong Buffalo” Varnado could be a character from a western or a historical novel. Varnado, his long white hair contrasting against a bright green head band, worn moccasin boots, camped out next to a giant teepee and was surrounded by crude tools and basic hunting supplies. Strong Buffalo wasn’t playing a character; he was a living, breathing history lesson for Copper Mill Elementary Students.
Varnado was among the many Native American historians, tribal leaders and craftsman who took part in Native American Day on Nov. 13 at Copper Mill Elementary School.
Christine Law, a fifth-grade social studies teacher and content leader, felt it was important to bring history and culture to the school instead of the traditional field trip experience.
“We brought in all the Native American tribes that are here so that the students could interact with real live Native Americans and see that they are still here among us,” Law said. “It’s not just a picture in a history book, it’s a real person, and they can interact with them and ask questions.”
November is National Native American Heritage Month in the United States, and it was also a great time to tie in months of social studies lessons. The fifth-grade social studies classes have been studying Native American history and culture from the Paleolithic era to the present. The students have learned about tribes across the United States and in Louisiana. In previous years, Copper Mill students have traveled to nearby Grand Village to culminate their Native American studies.
Grand Village of the Natchez, also known as the Fatherland Site, is a 128.1-acre site that includes a prehistoric indigenous village and earthwork mounds near Natchez, Mississippi. Instead of taking their students to Native American history and culture, the school made the decision to bring a wealth of history, culture and native tribes to the students and campus.
Law, who is part Native American, felt actual engagement with people would leave a strong and lasting impression on the school’s fifth-graders.
“We talked to (the principal) Mrs. Cassard at the beginning of the year and came up with this idea that would work well with the students to bring them here because I had access to these people,” Law said.
Angela Cassard valued the previous Native American-emphasis field trips but was also thrilled about the transformation her entire school would undergo on this day.
“I was very excited about it because in Zachary we do like to provide experiences for our children outside of a textbook, and that’s what this day was for me,” Cassard said. “These are our students getting to see it in real life.”
The event was also an innovative way to satisfy curriculum standards set by the state.
"Through this day, we met all the Native American standards — about six of them — and everything that we have been teaching from the beginning of the year culminates with this activity and covers our standards in our Louisiana state curriculum for fifth-grade social studies,” Law said.
After this unit of study is complete, the fifth-graders will be moving on to colonization.
Law is vested in the material and finds it close to her heart because she is a part of the Mi’kmaq tribe. A native of Church Point, she has strong Cajun and Native American heritage. She said her family, the Acadian Mi’kmaq, came from Nova Scotia and were descendants of Frenchmen who settled in Nova Scotia in 1610.
“So, my people are actually a cross between the Acadian French and the Mi’kmaq,” Law said. “The Frenchmen came, and they married the chief’s daughters, and their children became the Acadian Mi’kmaq.”
Six Native American groups were guests for the day and represented tribes and nations close to the region. The groups also conducted the six learning stations that were spread out across the school.
Danny Dyson and his family represented the Four Winds Tribe Louisiana Cherokee. The family danced in a joint assembly and manned the native flute demonstration learning station. The Dyson family lives in Big Lake, a small town between Lake Charles and Cameron Parish. They speak and dance at community gatherings and libraries in Cameron Parish.
Dyson is a musician and makes the rustic flutes that Native Americans would have used for centuries. He explained the legend of the wind and the woodpecker dream that folklore credits with the development of the instrument.
Scierra LeGarde represented the Bayou Lacombe Band and Mississippi Band of Choctaw. She demonstrated the jingle dress dance and manned the native beadwork learning station.
Becky Martin Anderson is a historic resource specialist at Grand Village of the Natchez Indians, the center where Copper Mill students previously went on field trips.
Jeffery Darensbourg, an Alligator Band council member, represented the Atakapa Ishak Nation. Darensbourg was the opening assembly guest speaker and later manned the storytelling learning station. During the storytelling station, students were treated to a Native American dish called the Three Sisters Soup, which contained beans, corn and other vegetables that would have been available to early tribes.
The Acadian Mi’kmaq planned a grand representation that was to be led by Law’s mother Shirlene Lejeune Guidry Labbee, a professional Acadian genealogist. However, Law explained, her mother and most of the family caught the flu the past weekend and could not attend.
Varnado, a native American historian from Livingston Parish, presented the Louisiana Choctaw and Cherokee groups. His learning station included a full-scale teepee and low-tech items native tribes could have used to cook, hunt and care for their families. He showed the practicality of learning from the past. “It’s important to know where you come from so you know what’s in the future,” Varnado said.
“I was raised like this,” he said. “I was born in a log cabin in the middle of a swamp in Livingston Parish, and I still live in a log house .”
Varnado’s demonstrations showed culture and history, but his emphasis was survival. “You need to know how to live like the people did,” he told the fifth-graders. “It’s important to know how to survive because one day we might have to get back there. Look at all the storms we’re having; knock the power out. We are used to all that good stuff, but when the power goes out, I can still live.”
Those living lessons were key to what Cassard saw as impactful. “It was important to me that our students see that this culture they are learning about is still important today,” she said.
Law is an educator and the Aboriginal Spiritual Leader of the Acadian-Metis-Mi’kmaq of Louisiana. Her roles overlap and fuel each other. “I do a lot of cultural work outside of my job as a social studies teacher,” she said. “For many years, I’ve done both Mi’kmaq and Acadian culture work.”
“I’m out there — all over the state educating, Law said. “I’m a teacher, that’s what I do.”