Sharing Old Ways With The Young

by Norm Kidder



I have spent the past 24 years as a park Naturalist, attempting with varying degrees of success to teach local school children about the recent stone age inhabitants of our area, the Ohlone Indians, and more recently, about early man in general. Third and fourth grade curricula mandate that local and state history be taught, and that it include the Indians. Fifth graders study American History (including Indians) and sixth grade covers early man and the Stone-age. Over the years we have developed programs at our park to deal with each of these topics. Our goals include overcoming television stereotypes, providing a base for modern environmental appreciation, understanding the origin of modern technologies and providing a few specific facts. Teaching techniques range from lecture to hands on participation.

In a perfect world, every kid would take a two week immersion style training where they learned all the basics in a real life setting. In the urban reality of today's classroom, with 30 kids, a limited budget and time, the odds are against us and the teachers we serve. The following are some programs that we (my park staff and volunteers) have developed.

The Indoor Indian Program - For 3rd Grade (and youth groups at the same age level), we use our Visitor Center to do 1 1/2 - 2 hr. programs on pre-contact Indian life in our area. After an introduction that includes information on the tribes in the groups local area, and basic hunter-gatherer lifestyles, the class is divided up to try various activities. These might include acorn pounding, fire drill attempts, atlatl throwing (launching), hoop and pole game, stick dice games, bullroarers and acorn tops. In the spring, a short walk can include digging a soap root plant (Chlorogalum) and washing our hands in the marsh, then pulling a cattail shoot and each getting a taste. Cattail leaves and/or tules can be used for cordage making demonstrations as well. These hands on (and tongues on) elements help cement the information, while demonstrations that include transformations of bulbs to soap, of leaves to rope and especially of sticks and effort into fire are sensed by children as true magic, and, if their letters to the 'Ranger' are an indication, are the most remembered events of the field trip. Our visitor center also offers exhibits on daily life of the Indians and mounted scenes of our marshlands and wildlife. A store offers books and 'artifacts' (Mexican arrowheads, and items made in our own 'artifactory', or purchased from Native artisans). We also provide checkout materials for the teachers to use on their own, and rental 'culture kits' for them to take into the classroom.

The Indian Village Tour - Any group older than the fourth grade level is scheduled for a 2- 2 1/2 hour tour to an archaeological site in the park which has reconstructions of different types of shelters used by Central California Indians weather permitting. Following a similar introduction to our Ohlone Indians, the group is divided in half for the half mile walk to the village site. Along the way, students are encouraged to imagine themselves transported back in time to an age when there were grizzly bears and condors, and only five people per square mile - a time of no stores and no strangers. To prepare the group for hunting and gathering, they are taught to read tracks (non-fiction only) and signs, sometimes taught how to walk properly, and given practice being invisible (quiet and still). We each carry a basket of items to illustrate aspects of life in the stone age as we move down the trail - bone saws to cut cattails for cordage, hunting gear to illustrate stalking, tule ducks, games and toys to keep the groups attention. Once at the village site, we compare what is left in the midden to what must have been used by this village of 100 people for roughly 22 centuries. We can discuss archaeology and its techniques and weaknesses, and the changes over time that can be deduced from the debris. Here the fire-making demonstration can be done in its natural setting, baskets are set out around a fire pit, and the illusion of a stone age lifestyle is created while sitting in a pit house, telling tales or playing ancient games. Two hours is never enough time to convey so much information. Our hope is to start an interest that will grow on its own.

Early Man Talks - Recently several sixth grade teachers have requested presentations on the stone age. Time constraints only allow for a 1 hour assembly lecture followed by fire and atlatl demonstrations outdoors. I borrow freely from Steve Watts wonderful "Primitive-grandma and Primitive-grandpa" story of the evolution of tools and culture.

The Stone-age Weekend (Rattlesnake Rendezvous) - This event is held each spring for two nights and three days using as few metal tools as possible, covering cooking and other basic skills. A 7th grade social studies teacher attended this event and then created the:

Stone-age Overnight - A teacher attended one of my first Stone age Weekend programs at which we practice all the basic skills, and did our cooking over a handdrill-lit fire using only non-metallic utensils. She then began an annual overnight with 7th graders selected from each social studies class who wear the furs of the wild polyester, living in shelters built from the blue tanned hides of the polypropylene tied with raffia cordage made in the classroom. They cooked over fires and ate from baskets they had each made. The program moved down to the 6th grade level after a change in the state curriculum.

The groups were basically on their own with pre-trip training provided by my wife Jan, myself or Dick Baugh. The year my daughter Emily was in 6th grade, I stayed for the whole program, and directed the cooking for 75 people. Two huge fires were started by a team of sixth grade boys, who were exceedingly proud of themselves. The menu consisted of potatoes carbonaise, roast corn en husque, and charcoal chicken - all cooked directly on the fire. Breakfast was ash cakes for all. The flour for the ash cakes was ground on a concrete metate which had originally been designed to divert rain water from a down spout. The basket plates were good for about one meal, and the group learned some important lessons about the affects of wind and mosquitoes.

The most interesting part of this for me was to watch the kids adapt their social context to this new format. Courtship behavior was evident, as was the formation of secret societies. Relationships were fluid, and a child who was considered strange because she had lived in the country and could skin rabbits was briefly admired for this ability. After several years of this program, each aspect of the trip has become traditionalized, as each new class is initiated into the 'clan'.

For those schools, it has become like a modern rite of passage with each activity taking on quasi sacred elements. Life was not otherwise complete and harmonious. Stone age skills were, after all, only the means to achieve a harmonious relationship with the world. Over the years the tools change, but the goal remains.



This article was first published in The Bulletin of Primitive Technology (Spring 1996, #11)
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