Dartmouth students hands-on learning from the Indigenous traditions

HANOVER, N. H. – in the Midst of the hustle and bustle of a chainsaw and pounding hammers, a group of Dartmouth College students to help cut down ash tree and the bark, which will eventually be used to make the traditional Native baskets.

Their outdoor classroom experience is a part of the academic outreach and hands-on learning that has helped Dartmouth graduate more indians than any other Ivy League institution since the recommitment for the Indigenous community in the early 1970s. The classes not only promote understanding of the indigenous population, but also to give some Native American students a chance to connect with their roots.

“You don’t get to chop wood, or scrape a moose hide in a regular classroom,” said Ha’aheo Hanohano, a 21-year-old junior who is Native Hawaiian.

Native Americans represent 4% of the students, with more than 1000 alumni. The Native American Community Program has brought hundreds of potential Indigenous students from all corners of the country to visit Dartmouth.

The program’s academic efforts help the students get an idea of what life was like for American Indians, who once called much of the Northeast home. Professor Nick Reo said the larger goal of the lesson is to shed light on the indigenous peoples’ connections with nature.

“If we’re going to talk about indigenous ways to understand the world, we need to learn directly from the Indigenous population,” said Reo, who is a member of the Sault Ste. Marie Chippewa Tribe in Michigan. “In this class, we connect with the land.”

Reo, who was inspired to start the class with similar hands-on experiences that he had at the University of Michigan, requires the approximately 20 students — about half of the Native American — tan a moose hide for the head of a ceremonial drum, and the study of the contemporary indigenous hunting practices.

“When we would stop to look at a plant or try to make something, that is if what we’re learning,” Reo said. “The only way to let the animals and the land not of our teachers is by spending time outside.”

Alex Hawley, a 21-year-old native american from Utah, said the class has exposed her to Indigenous traditions from the Northeast, who found they are different than those of her Navajo tribe in Utah.

“It is nice to get out of my own tribe and experience different ways of making art,” Hawley said. “Navajos weaving rugs, so making baskets is something I haven’t done this before.”

For students who are not Native American, the class gives a new appreciation for the native traditions and culture.

“I think that we need to take a step back and realize that our Western culture does not really recognize or appreciate the environment in the way that Indigenous communities do,” said Lauren Jortberg, a 20-year-old sophomore.

Earlier this month at the Dartmouth organic farm, master basket maker Geo Neptune walked students through the basic steps for weaving a traditional basket, and many of them are found in museums and are treated as art.

For the felling of a tree, Neptune, a Dartmouth alumnus, who is part of the Passamaquoddy tribe in Indian township in Maine, offered tobacco to a brown ash tree in a ritual practice. Kevin Evans, the college, the director of the forest activities, are started in the chain saw.

After the tree is felled, the students took the mud from a nearby stream. She laid it on the stump for regrowth purposes, and then helped each other in the run of the logs out of the forest and back to the farm. The students stripped of the tree is scaly exterior to reveal a smooth bark, and processed the log into strips of wood. Neptune hopes to put the materials in the baskets at the time of booking.

“This is the sound of creation,” Neptune said he hit the tree with a hammer.

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