GREAT BARRINGTON — "Hawk" holds their hands. They love his name. And they want to know all about the feathers on his head.

Chief Robert HawkStorm Bergin walks on the forest path with a passel of wide-eyed children and tells them about the headdress.

The turkey feathers represent the people.

"They don't fly," said HawkStorm, chief of the Schaghticoke First Nations, a tribe whose people are indigenous to New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts — the Berkshires included.

There is a hawk feather missing, he said, because he gave it to someone to "represent myself."

Then there are the eagle feathers.

"The Great Eagle Spirit takes thoughts and intentions and everything we're thinking and takes them up to the Great Spirit," HawkStorm said.

He said the eagle feathers are a reminder to be honest and true, including to oneself.

The kindergartners, bouncing into each other, are also full of questions — one asks beyond what HawkStorm is willing to discuss in the presence of children so young.

"Is the story about Christopher Columbus true?"

The adults went silent. HawkStorm paused, then said, "That's for another day, but I'm glad you brought that up."

HawkStorm, who is a direct descendant of Wampanoag Chief Wasanegin Massasoit, came to the Great Barrington Rudolf Steiner School on Friday to honor First Nations Day, also known as Indigenous Peoples Day. The tribe's reservation in Millbrook, N.Y., organized in 1736, is the oldest in the U.S.

HawkStorm, 41, is a member of the United Nations' Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, and part of a national movement to strike Columbus Day from the federal holiday list.

Later, away from the young children, he speaks to a reporter.

"To really understand the creation of this country — it's just so barbaric," he said of the reported savagery of the Italian explorer toward natives.

But HawkStorm didn't come here to get into politics. He was here to talk about real things like water, poison ivy, and comparing with the children scratches received by brambles on the woodland loop behind the school.

They came upon a teepee made of sticks, and it was suddenly filled with children, giggling and proud that they could show it to HawkStorm.

"Teepees are built to break the wind," he told them, briefly mentioning the encampments at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota. "The storms came, and when the winds were coming, the tents were flying around everywhere. But the teepees were good."

He said the wigwam structures built by his ancestors were equally robust against the wind, and easily shed snow.

Those were the days when HawkStorm's people walked these forests with their uninterrupted connection to earth and spirit. Some Native American practices, he noted, were later restricted by the federal government.

"You're not human if you don't have your religion," he later says, noting the restoration of these rights with the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978. He said these bans on burning sage, for instance, were a dehumanization method used by colonists.

"Separating everybody from their seeds, their history — it's why our children are lost," he said.

HawkStorm was one of the lost ones, after being taken away from an abusive alcoholic father and the mother who had him at age 14. He was adopted into a white, Roman Catholic family, and wound up living on the streets before he learned his lineage, and realized his ancestors have been guiding him to work for "unity" in a world that is divided, since he also has some white blood.

"I'm a bridge," he said.

HawkStorm later spoke to the grade school students, who honored the day with a play about the founding of the Great Law of Peace in the Haudenosaunee Nation. And HawkStorm told them of the interconnectedness of all people through water and earth, and gave a gentle caution about the distance pollution can travel.

"Water is life," he said, "but I want to go one step further and say, 'we are the water.'"

Heather Bellow can be reached at or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.