Native children need nature skills

by Doug George-Kanentiio©
News From Indian Country

The Discovery Channel is producing a series of stories about Native history prior to the arrival of the salt water people from the east.

One episode concerns the formation of the Iroquois Confederacy over 800 years ago. Think Film of Washington, D.C., produced the story which featured a cast composed primarily of Iroquois actors. The actual broadcast, set for 2009, will begin with the narrator speaking in Mohawk before slipping into English.

As the technical advisor for the project it was my task to insure the appearance of the actors was consitent with the 12th century, meaning their haircuts, tatoos, clothing and tools were appropriate for that time and place.

What was remarkable from the first date of makeup and clothing were the changes in the cast they went into wardrobe as contemporary men, boys, women and girls but emerged as true Iroquois. Their Native features were accentuated by the 12 century clothing which in turn changed their demeanor. They walked with dignity and self assurance characteristic of their ancestors.

This kind of project also called for the demonstration of traditional stalking, fighting, cultivation, harvesting and fishing skills. It was not enough that the cast looked Native they also had to show it. And that is what was missing.

Instead of turning to our elders for guidance we had to enlist the support of non-Natives who supplied our crew with elm bark canoes, flint arrows and scapula hoes. We have largely forgotten how to make or use these things which is embarassing.

The producers had to reach as far westwards as Indiana (the film was shot in and near the Adirondacks) to find someone who knew how to make birch bark and elm canoes, then pay thousands of dollars to have them delivered to the movie set.

This was true throughout the filming. It served to remind me that our children desperately need to know the fundamentals of woodcraft. Not only does this knowledge enhance their identity as Natives but may well mean survival in hostile circumstances. It is also good for business since our economic viability is rooted in our status as distinct peoples.

Here is my list of the basics which must be mastered by all Native children if they are to sustain their relationship with the natural world.

All children must be able to talk to the natural world. English is an alien tongue not understood by wind, birds, water or plants. Children should know how to give thanks in a Native language. They should also know how to speak to healing plants whose true powers can only be realized using Indigenous words. The spirit beings also respond to Native sounds. Along with a basic command of language all of our children should have their Native name, an essential part of the spiritual well being.

Children must know elementary woodcraft. They should, from the age of five, know how to start a fire without matches or lighters, which plants are good to eat, how to tell direction in a forest, how to build a basic shelter, secure water and stay warm.

They should be able to control their fears and be at ease away from human habitation. They should also be comfortable with the night. If they become lost all Native children should be taught what to do to signal for help.

After their fifth year children should begin making their own tools. Arrow head knapping is an easy skill to master, as is making tools such as fishing poles, bows, arrows and crude axes.

They should know how to tell trees apart and what food or medicine can be obtained from which tree. They should know at least a dozen plant types to be used in emergencies or as primary food sources. They should know which plants are poisonous as well.

Before a Native child is ten they should know how to plant seeds, take care of small gardens, clean a fish, skin small game. They should be able to track animals and to make their own clothing from animal skins if necessary. They should be able to read the night and day time skies for change in the weather and to tell star constellations.

They should also receive instruction in music. Native life cannot exist without music and dance so knowing social songs and dances is vital. It is also the easiest, most direct way of communicating across national boundaries.

Children should also be taught the basic laws of nature, to respect all living things, give thanks for the blessing of life, to honour elders, protect women, defend their families.

Insects, mammls, birds, fish, all have their way of being which can be learned by careful observation. This requires sensitivity, patience, awareness – skills our ancestors highly valued.

A source of pride for all children is knowing where they came from and who they are. Our children should have their own heroes and have a basic command of their nation’s past. They should also be aware of how they came to be in relation to the visitors from the east. For everything learned from non-Natives something distinctly Native should be taught for balance.

Once our children have a deep sense of identity they become self-assured, proud, secure. And then they can move into any job, including acting, with ease. If they elect to join the military they will have a huge advantage in training and survival skills. But movies in particular respond to strong characters as I learned during my Discovery Channel experience.