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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


November 30, 2002 - Issue 75


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Students Build Indian History for Museum

by Patti Brandt Bay City Michigan Times
WigwamUsing poplar saplings cut from a field and cattails plucked from a ditch, Bay City students on Saturday got a hands-on lesson in the Bay area's American Indian history.

About 30 students and their parents built a wigwam by tying the saplings together with sinew and then covering the dome-shaped frame with hand-sewn mats made of the cattails.

The wigwam will be used in a new exhibit: "Circle of Life; Medicine Wheel and Ojibway Heritage," set to open Dec. 2 at the Bay County Historical Museum, 321 Washington Ave.

The exhibit will demonstrate the Ojibway way of life and will feature a 20-foot medicine wheel and vignettes of the four seasons, or snapshots of what takes place in Ojibway culture at different times of the year.

The Ojibway people settled in the Bay area in the 1600s, and the exhibit focuses on their beliefs and traditions - many of which are still alive today.

The youths who worked on the wigwam Saturday are students in Bay City Schools' Indian Education Program.

"Not a lot of people are aware of the medicine wheel and how it influences Native American lives on a daily basis," said Corrine Bloomfield, curator of exhibits and education for the museum.

In the exhibit a Sugar Bush, signifying renewal, represents spring; summer is depicted by the Three Sisters - corn, beans and squash - which grow together and represent harmony; fall is depicted by the wild rice plant and the process of harvesting; and winter is depicted with the wigwam.

"Winter was a time of teaching around the fire," said Sandra Dezelah, Indian Education Program manager for Bay City Public Schools. "That's the time when children sat around the fire and learned the stories and the lessons."

Building the wigwam for the winter scene was a lot harder than Dezelah thought it would be, and it taught the students a real lesson, she said.

"They got a real appreciation of what it meant to make lodging," she said. "You didn't just walk into a house."

Dezelah and Bloomfield have been working together for about a year to make sure everything in the exhibit will be authentic, as well as respectful of the Ojibway culture.

During that year Bloomfield has spent time on a reservation, attended a wild rice ceremony and met with members of the American Indian community to get input on the exhibit and to check its accuracy.

In her quest she has earned the respect of Dezelah, who is a member of the Sault Ste. Marie tribe of the Chippewa, by not depending on "computer research."

"I think Corrine has had a cultural immersion," Dezelah said. "She has sought out the people with knowledge."

The two women have also been in the trenches together.

The cattails used in the wigwam were spotted in a ditch on Beaver Road.

"We got our rubber boots on and got down in that ditch and started throwing out cattails," Dezelah said. "My husband came out in his truck and we loaded them up and put them in the freezer."

Freezing them keeps them green, pliable and easier to sew into mats, she said.

Saturday's mat-making was an all-day project, but one that Dezelah hopes will give her students an idea of their roots.

"We're trying to do it the correct way, one - so the children will learn, and two - so that people will understand how things were done."

Bloomfield says she wants the exhibit to teach "the truth" about American Indian culture.

She is also hoping it will change people in some small way.

"Some of the impressions the public has of Native Americans may not be the truth. If you come in and see this exhibit, maybe that image you have in your mind won't be there anymore. It won't be the same."

The exhibit will tie in with an art exhibit at Studio 23, a sky show at the Delta Planetarium and an adult speaker series to be announced later.

Patti Brandt covers Bay County schools for The Times. She can be reached at 894-9673.

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