Nipmucs bring culture, tradition to Pittsfield's summer learning program


PITTSFIELD -- The students eyed their guests with curious looks. There were some whispers, some giggles and pointing, but most children just looked on intently, watching and waiting to see what happened next.

The guests were friends and family members of Larry Spotted Crow Mann, all members of the Nipmuc Native American tribe which has roots in Massachusetts, particularly the central part of the commonwealth.

Though they don't dress in it every day, they came dressed in traditional regalia -- which are not considered costumes -- to share songs, dance, stories and other teachings from their culture with the approximately 70 students in the 21st Century Community Learning summer program at Crosby Elementary School.

As part of a grant program, the students have been studying the cultures, traditions and histories of various tribes in the Northeast region. The students, through another grant, have also been learning about gardening, and have been growing their own vegetables, some of which will become part of the school lunch menu.

They've planted a "three sisters garden" of corn, beans and squash, three foods inherent to the sustenance of early crop-growing Americans. Students also went through the process of making early tools, creating a garden rake using deer antlers, strips of leather and a tree branch.

By the end of the presentation, Larry Spotted Crow Mann, Elizabeth Mann, Marisa Swift Deer Crow Riley, Joshua Little Elk Riley and Matoonas Anoki Mann had a crowd of students around them. They had shared a part of their culture that the kids could now relate to.

PHOTO GALLERY | Nipmuc Native Americans visit and perform at Crosby Elementary School in Pittsfield as part of a summer learning program with an American Indian theme.

"I think what we do with this, gardening, teaches us about what we just saw," said rising fifth-grader Alexa Yasinski, referring to the Nipmuc cultural presentation.

"The garden is a good idea because it helps the earth in a way, and we're giving back to it by growing things," said Morgan Martin, who will also be entering the fifth-grade.

Much of Larry Spotted Crow Mann's presentation -- as told through interactive stories with music, dance and games -- carried morals about being respectful to nature and to others, and the importance of learning about variety of cultures that exist in the United States.

"In our culture, before there were schools, teaching was done by grandmas and grandpas who told stories about how we live. There's a message behind each of those stories," Mann said.

For Mann's niece, Marisa Swift Deer Crow Riley, 16, teaching those stories is part of her responsibility as president of the Historical Nipmuc Tribe Youth Council.

"I teach them the dances and their meanings," she said. She also organizes fundraisers like bake sales and spaghetti dinners to help raise money to buy materials to make regalia.

She, Joshua Little Elk Riley, 14, and Matoonas Anoki Mann, 16, all go to traditional schools and have plenty of non-Native friends, but say they do get asked about it all the time when they wear regalia or practice hand drums for a school presentation or a gathering at a powwow.

Instead of explaining themselves over and over again, they teenagers invite their friends and other people they meet to attend a powwow, try drumming, learning dance or a few songs.

"Everyone should go to a powwow once in their lives to really experience it," Matoonas Anoki Mann said.


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