Native culture taught to local students


Editor's note: On the day this article was published, Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. issued a proclamation declaring the day (Friday, September 26, 2014) as Native American Day in the State of California. Native American tribes across California gathered at the state Capitol to celebrate the 47th annual Native American Day. The theme of this year’s celebration was “Water is Life, Water is Sacred.”

On September 25, Governor Brown signed legislation to establish Native American Day as an official state holiday to be recognized on the fourth Friday in September. The Governor also signed a bill to require consultation between lead agencies and all California Native American tribes as part of the environmental review process under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), helping to protect ancient Native American tribal cultural resources such as sacred sites and ancient burials.

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The California Native American Student Days were hosted this past Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, Sept. 17 to 19, at the Three Rivers Historical Museum. This living history exhibit highlighted the best possible mode of learning for area fourth-grade students. Classes from Three Rivers, Lemon Cove, Exeter, and Woodlake attended during the three-day demonstration and festival.

The Three Rivers Historical Society sponsored and staged the event for the fourth graders so that they might better understand what life was like for the indigenous Yokuts people of Tulare County. The event richly supplements the social studies curriculum, which includes studying Native American history. 

“Over 500 students came to this event,” said Tom Marshall, TRHS president. “They hear about the Indians in class, but they put it all together when they see it here.” 

Each session of the three-day event opened with an authentic blessing with an eagle feather and smudge stick by Eddie and Johnny Sartuche, a father/son duo of Wuksachi ancestry. They also built the Native American shelters on display on the TRHS property. The wickiups stand as true replicas of the ones built by the native peoples. 

“The students are here today to learn respect,” Eddie said. “Respect for the Earth, respect for the elders, respect for the language, and respect for the old ways.” 

After the participants were gathered in a circle, each person was individually cleansed and blessed.

Students then broke into groups and visited several different stations, each with a 10-minute demonstration highlighting a certain aspect of Yokuts life. Stations included the art of storytelling, how soaproot brushes are made, acorn grinding, basket weaving, a dice game, a spin-the-wheel language lesson, medallion making, and the building of various types of shelters.

Evelyn Malone was the storyteller. She told the Yokuts legend of how the ancient people got their hands — the outcome of  a competition between the coyote and the lizard. 

“The lizard won, so that’s why we have hands like lizards,” Evelyn said to her captivated fourth-grade audience. 

“Learning how the people got their hands was my favorite part,” said Cheyenne, a fourth-grade student at Three Rivers Union School.

Marie Wilcox, the last known fluent speaker of the Wukchumni language, taught students how to play the women’s dice game. The game board she uses is nearly a century old and was handwoven by her mother, Beatrice. Marie and her daughters come from a long line of basket weavers. 

“Marie spent seven years compiling a dictionary of the Wukchumni language,” said her daughter, Evelyn Malone. 

Marie is now teaching her children and grandchildren to speak in the native dialect to preserve the language and keep the cultural traditions alive.

Marie and her family offer free language classes twice a week at Owens Valley Career Development Center in Visalia. The classes are Tuesday and Wednesday from 3:30 to 6:30 pm.

Candy Villapando, a fourth grader at Sequoia Union, said that her favorite part was learning how to say hello in Wukchumni. “Making the medallions was really fun too,” she said.

As well as being a living classroom for the students, the Native Americans who took part in the event were excited to share what life was like in ancient times with the children and their teachers. 

“It’s great to be able to share our customs and traditions with these students,” Evelyn Malone said. 

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