Native American tribes captivate students with cultural traditions and storytelling

Collen Kaska of the Havasupai tribe spoke to students about traditions and storytelling, Feb. 11. Loretta Yerian/WGCN

Collen Kaska of the Havasupai tribe spoke to students about traditions and storytelling, Feb. 11. Loretta Yerian/WGCN

GRAND CANYON, Ariz. - Colleen Kaska is a native of Grand Canyon in every sense possible, as a member of the Havasupai tribe and having been born and raised in the Canyon. On Feb. 11. Kaska was one of three Native American speakers asked to address students at Grand Canyon School.

The speakers were invited to speak at the school by high school English teacher Carol Frischmann, who is teaching her students the value of ancient traditions and cultures through the art of storytelling and oral history.

"We live in an area where there are many traditional stories that are instructive to young people about how they'll live. These stories accompany ceremonies that are the basis of that tribe's cultural life," Frischmann said. "To me it seemed really important for those of us who haven't heard these cultural stories to learn about them and that the kids who come from these cultures are able to see that they can do something that puts them on an even plane with the great stories of literature that did the same thing."

Ever since coming to the Canyon, Frischmann's dream has been to recognize and introduce local cultures to her students. Frischmann was able to achieve that goal through a $500 community grant she received last fall from the Grand Canyon Rotary on the Rim.

"The Rotary club grant allows me to invite people here and to pay their travel expenses and provide a small honorarium," she said.

Through her high school English class, Frischmann has dedicated her life to educating students about these traditional stories and wants to impart the importance of storytelling. Recently, Frischmann discovered most classroom textbooks focus mainly on European and Asian cultures, something she would like to change by having people from local cultures speak to students.

"Students are familiar with epics such as the Odyssey and we are studying these epics from other cultures that are traditionally orally transmitted, but what has really struck me since I came to the Canyon was that we have three cultures - two underrepresented cultures, those are Hispanic cultures and the tribes that live right here and these are those kids," Frischmann said.

Frischmann explained that for many students identifying with one another's cultural heritage could be limited.

"They go to school with each other but they don't really know each other's traditional stories," she said. "The purpose of these epics and traditional stories, besides entertainment, was to help people understand what the culture expected of them."

Inviting Kaska to speak to her students is one way Frischmann is helping to imparting cultural history to students.

Kaska said investing time in young people's lives and teaching them about her culture is important to keeping traditions and storytelling alive.

"I think it's very important because now days there are some families that are very traditional and some families that let it go by the wayside," Kaska said. "If it (history) comes from a different person than somebody else than their family it hits home. If they're listening to someone else of their own culture it's like, 'wow, I never knew that."

Kaska was raised in a very traditional home and spoke to students about her upbringing. She wore traditional Havasupai clothing for her presentation and talked to students about the beauty of coming of age in her tribe and the expectations of parenting, childbirth, childcare and the role of different members within the tribe.

"When I was growing up I didn't think (we) were traditional, it was just a way of being brought up by the parents," she said. "But now looking back, they were very traditional."

Kaska told students about growing up with dirt for floors and no running water or electricity and explained the respect children were expected to have for their elders. She encouraged them to learn from their elders, listen to their stories and never forget where their cultural identities lie.

"When you go out into the world, be open-minded," Kaska said

Kaska also told students a traditional story passed down to her from her grandfather.

According to Kaska she wants to raise her children with an appreciation and knowledge of their heritage. Kaska's son, Neegoh is a ninth grade student in Frischmann's English class and attended his mother's presentation. Kaska grew up in and around the Grand Canyon and currently works as a tribal ranger for the park.

Frischmann said this is her first year to invite cultural speakers to the school and hopes to make it a tradition for future students.

"I hope I can build on this. What I would like to do is to continue this and have a festival of these stories every year," she said. "So I can make the point that these stories are every bit as elegant and as instructive and as literary and important as the things we read in our textbook."

The Rotary grant allowed enough monetary compensation to invite four speakers to visit the school year. Earlier this month, representatives from the Hopi and Navajo tribes addressed students. Frischmann hopes to have a person of Hispanic nationality speak to students before the end of the school year.

Frischmann asked students to write reflection papers on what was significant to them and how it related to their lives.

Student feedback

The emphasis Mrs. Kaska put on the importance the Supai place on respecting their bodies - made an impression on students-especially the young women.

Her use of music in her presentation -the lullabies that she sang to the students also helped those who relate to music.

The cradleboard Ms. Kaska brought made sense to many students, especially the construction of the semicircular band around the top which, when draped with a scarf, provides protection for the baby from the sun, as well as providing a place to hang toys to keep the baby amused. Students recognized the ability of the cradleboard to be used as a carrier, a car seat, and in earlier times a way to transport a child on horseback.

One student noticed that both the Hopi and the Supai storytellers emphasized that elders want to teach children about the culture so traditions will be passed to their descendants.

Another student said because of the speakers, she hoped to be invited on a field trip to see traditional sites rather than simply hearing about the traditions.

Students identified with the idea that for the Havasupai, water is sacred.

Ms. Kaska's presentation reminded one student that her Catholic traditions gave her a strong sense of morality and a clear direction, a tradition she plans to pass to her own family.

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