Canku Ota

(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


april 21, 2001 - Issue 34



Native Youths Tell Ancient Tale


 by James Hagengruber of the Billings Gazette Staff


Ty Robinson, left, and Victor Yarlott practice their drumming as part of their routine for the Destination ImagiNation competition.

The campfire pulsed with indigo flashes. An eagle hissed. Light from a sacred star poked through a cardboard box.

The homemade props ready, a group of St. Labre Elementary School students began practicing their interpretation of a 122-year-old Northern Cheyenne saga.

Young boys flailed a homemade drum as girls whirled and danced in front of a tepee erected beneath a basketball hoop in the St. Labre School gymnasium. A little girl in a mock buckskin dress calmly began telling a story.

“Many moons ago, the Cheyenne people lived peacefully in Montana,” said 9-year-old Slone LaFountain.

It was practice time for the group of third- and fourth-graders, who hope to turn their performance into a world championship next month at an international problem-solving competition. Even though St. Labre Indian School has never competed at any Destination ImagiNation event – much less a DI world championship – this team’s work has already won top regional and state awards. In the process, the children have rekindled interest among their peers in traditional Northern Cheyenne culture.

“This is an impressive bunch of kids,” said Bart Elliot, who co-coaches the team with his wife, Tammy, a teacher at St. Labre.

“People don’t understand the hours it’s taken and frustrations of these kids,” Tammy Elliot said.

As the world becomes tougher, kids need to be taught problem-solving skills at younger ages, Elliot said. The nonprofit Destination ImagiNation, encourages this sort of problem solving, she said. Although Montana schools are only beginning to get involved with Destination ImagiNation, the group is popular in states with large populations. Winning DI competitions help students earn scholarships and entry into prestigious universities, she said.

“It helps teach problem solving,” she said. “You can never start children too young with this.”

St. Labre students began trying out for the school’s inaugural team in the fall. To be given a chance on the squad, prospective team members had to build a bridge out of drinking straws and paper clips, complete a cushioned egg drop experiment, perform a lip sync and design a Halloween costume.

The school’s Destination ImagiNation coordinator Jesse Andres said the projects required dozens of hours of work.

“It was about deadlines,” he said. “If they didn’t meet deadlines, they were off the team.”

With a team of seven assembled, the children needed to put together an eight- minute performance that used a variety of technical special effects – “to make the unbelievable seem real,” according to DI’s rules.

First they needed a story, one based on Destination ImagiNation’s theme this year: travel.

“We were going to do the Wizard of Oz but it was too complicated,” LaFountain said.

The children were encouraged by their coaches to tell a tale unique to their culture, stories that would not be told by children from Connecticut or California. Tribal elders, including Richard Tall Bull, helped them brainstorm by filling their young minds with traditional stories.

The students developed a story about the Cheyenne’s bloody escape in 1879 from Fort Robinson, Neb. They wrote a story from the perspective of the fictionalized Travels Alone family.

Members of the Travels Alone family had been forced out of Montana to Oklahoma with the rest of the Cheyenne by the federal government after the defeat of Custer near present-day Crow Agency.

As members of the tribe languished in Oklahoma, Chiefs Little Wolf and Dull Knife decided to lead the tribe home. Some members remained behind.

The two leaders made it to Nebraska, where they split into two bands. Little Wolf would continue to Montana with the healthiest members of the tribe. Dull Knife and his band of sick and weak Cheyenne would seek shelter from traditional allies, the Lakota.

Federal troops tracked Dull Knife and his band. They were captured and imprisoned at Fort Robinson in the middle of winter with no heat, water or shelter. The group escaped five days later, but many were massacred within minutes of leaving the garrison as they tried hiding in a creek bed. Dull Knife and a small group eventually made it to their ancestral home in Montana.

The St. Labre students eventually boiled this story down to an eight-minute performance. Their next step was developing special effects for this century-old tale.

The children made a drum out of rawhide. A leftover piece was used for the story board, upon which the tale was written using traditional symbols. Costumes were made.

A tepee was built to house a theatrical smoke machine, which puffs smoke when a white buffalo appears as a vision to elders in Oklahoma.

Team member Ty Robinson flicked on the smoke machine’s switch to demonstrate its power. The gym quickly filled with white smoke. In the performance, the machine is on for only a few seconds, but Robinson kept it on for more than a minute. As the smoke poured out, he jumped up and down, laughing. The other kids ran in circles around the smoke-belching tepee.

“Go ahead and shut it off, Ty. That’s good, Ty!” Mrs. Elliot said.

Sticks were piled around a strobe light to mimic a bonfire. A light bulb inside of a pole-mounted box punched with holes became a morning star, which is central to Cheyenne traditions. The star is flicked on later in the performance, providing hope to the Travels Alone family as they return to Montana.

The crowning technical effect is the eagle, constructed of a casserole of parts, including turkey feathers, plaster and glass marbles for eyes. In the spirit of the competition, the children had to make the eagle themselves. They received raw materials when a family member shot a wild turkey.

“We had to pluck the feathers from the turkey,” Bartlett said

The makeshift raptor is perched atop a gnarly tree made of chicken wire, papier-mache and masking tape. An air compressor hose is connected to the eagle, allowing the bird to flap its wings at key moments during the performance.

After months of practice and fine tuning, the children give a tight performance.

“We have eight minutes to perform, and it took us five months to get ready,” said Sierra Red Fox, who plays the role of Moki Travels Alone.

Throughout the skit, Robinson and Victor Yarlott drum and sing. LaFountain narrates. Sierra Alexander, Red Fox and Anna Burek act out scenes and dance traditional steps. Alicia Bartlett stays inside the tepee, operating the various lights and the smoke machine.

Team members come from a variety of backgrounds. Most have Cheyenne or Crow ancestors. One is Chippewa. Another is from Wisconsin, said St. Labre’s director, Curtis Yarlott.

“We don’t have a Flathead, but we do have a cheesehead,” he joked.

Coach Tammy Elliot said the group was committed to earning a trip to the global competition, which will be held beginning May 23 in Knoxville, Tenn.

“They set their hopes and goals on Tennessee,” she said.

No matter the outcome, the work has already encouraged other children at the school to take an interest in their culture and listen to traditional stories. A new drum group for elementary school students has already been started using the team’s drum, Andres said.

“It’s put more culture into the school,” he said. “It’s put the kids in contact with elders and traditional ways.”

“It has enhanced them to want to be a part of their cultures,” Tammy Elliot said.

Destination Imagination




  Canku Ota is a free Newsletter celebrating Native America, its traditions and accomplishments . We do not provide subscriber or visitor names to anyone. Some articles presented in Canku Ota may contain copyright material. We have received appropriate permissions for republishing any articles. Material appearing here is distributed without profit or monetary gain to those who have expressed an interest. This is in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107.  

Canku Ota is a copyright © 2000, 2001 of Vicki Lockard and Paul Barry.



The "Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America" web site and its design is the

Copyright © 1999, 2000, 2001 of Paul C. Barry.

All Rights Reserved.