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Fifth-graders learn about Native American history for Thanksgiving

Linda Ditch
Pratt Tribune
Royal Valley High School students Mae Joslin and Swede Wahwassuck demonstrate Native American dance to Elmont Elementary fifth-graders.

This is the time of year when many teachers introduce their students to Native American history in preparation for Thanksgiving. At Elmont Elementary on  in Topeka, the fifth-graders learned about the local Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation story from tribal council member Raphael Wahwassuck and two Royal Valley High School students.

“It’s important for students to know that we’re not just figures in their history text,” Wahwassuck said. “I know this time of year, a lot of schools briefly cover some native history, but really, it’s a chance to give these students a chance to interact with their peers, to know we’re still here.”

Royal Valley senior Mae Joslin (whose native name is Wapashekwe) and sophomore Swede Wahwassuck (the council member’s son with the native name Nahconbe) are competitive native dancers. They showed the fifth-graders two forms of dance. Mae’s was the traditional Potawatomi woodlands dance, while Swede did a grass dance, which was used to flatten the grass in preparation for a native ceremony. Both said young students think they still live in a teepee or longhouse instead of being busy, modern-day teens.

“I’m glad we had the opportunity to express that we are kids, we do play sports, and we have lives besides going to powwows and dancing, but still getting the point across that this is how we live,” said Mae, who plans to study linguistics in college and expand native language opportunities.  “This is not a religion but a way of life.”

“We explain that we are just regular high school kids,” added Swede, who hopes for a basketball career. “We just wanted to show everyone how beautiful our culture is and the things we have to do to keep it alive.”

Elmont fifth-grade social studies teacher Julie Josserand said her class is  currently studying Native American history from the first Americans through the Revolutionary War.

“I organized this so they can have a firsthand experience of the culture and stories, and know what we’re talking about rather than just trying to picture it from what they’ve heard from me or a video or text in a book,” she said.

The Elmont students learned from councilman Wahwassuck how the Potawatomi tribe came to Kansas from the Great Lakes region of Michigan. 

The kids were intrigued by the dances and asked a lot of questions about the powwows and competitions the high schoolers attend. 

The program started with a couple of Native American JAG kids. It has expanded to include the tribe’s involvement. In addition to sharing tribal information, the kids to learn public speaking skills.