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Native American immersion experience connects EHS students with their ancestors

Aerial view of Kuhlman stadium with water tower in foreground.

Three Edina High School (EHS) juniors participated in a semester-long journey through places and beliefs that their ancestors knew well. Carson Ryan, Andrea Richardson, and Clayton Carlson (pictured left to right) were part of the Dave Larsen American Indian Immersion Experience, a program that partners with six high schools (including EHS), the Fond du Lac Nation and Tribal College, the Lower Sioux Community, North Hennepin Community College, and the University of Minnesota, providing hands-on experiences with leading indigenous educators.

The college level class began in January. It culminated in a five-day bus tour in late April that the students attended, along with Kourtnee Baukol, EHS Native American Liaison and FACS teacher, and students from the five other partner high schools.

The 56-passenger bus became an experiential classroom where students gathered knowledge from visits to sites of historic and cultural significance to the first peoples of Minnesota. The tour enables tribal nations and colleges to welcome indigenous students to their communities to learn more about tribal government, education opportunities, land re-acquisition, tribal sovereignty, language revitalization, health and environmental projects.

The American Indian Immersion Experience is the vision of Dakota elder Dave Larsen, who passed away last fall. He was a former chairman of the Lower Sioux Tribal Council and an active teacher of Native American culture, history and practices at schools, churches, historical societies and universities.

In late May, the program will receive the 2018 Environmental Initiative Award. Environmental Initiative is a nonprofit organization that builds partnerships with business, government and nonprofit leaders to develop collaborative solutions to Minnesota’s environmental problems. The organization has honored collaborative environmental projects through their annual awards program since 1994. The Dave Larsen American Indian Immersion Experience places significant emphasis on Native American beliefs, and respect for the earth and nature, seeking to foster environmental stewardship and protection from an indigenous perspective.

Here are excerpts from the reflection essays that the EHS students wrote following the tour:

Clayton Carlson

“My favorite part of the trip was going spearfishing with Greg…I went out early with him and helped him drill the holes in the ice, and set up the ice house. I have gone ice fishing before, but I had never used a technique like spearfishing. Later in the morning once the group had joined us, I showed them the ‘drill and chisel’ method to drill holes that I had just learned from Greg earlier...

“Another thing that I learned on the trip is the difference between traditional and commercial tobacco. The Ojibwe name for traditional tobacco is “asemaa.” At The University of Minnesota-Duluth American Indian Studies Program, we learned that asemaa is sacred. It is meant for spiritual, cultural and ceremonial use only. It is used to honor and welcome guests, and to communicate with the Creator or spirit world. It can be sacrificed to the Great Spirit or used as an offering, or thanks to those that pray or share wisdom with you. During the tour, there were many times in which we offered an elder asemaa to thank them.

“I learned that the only way to learn a culture is to experience it…At the start of this tour, I felt that I knew little to nothing about the American Indian culture. Now… I feel that I am familiar with the native ways of life. I hope I get more chances to experience the native culture, and I hope that I will get to experience other cultures as well.”

Andrea Richardson

“By working in a group to make a presentation about tobacco the tour allowed me to work on my leadership skills in a group setting. I was able to observe the dynamic of the group and get a feel for where my gifts and strengths were needed, as well of those in my groups. As a leader, I think it is important to acknowledge and appreciate everyone’s gifts and strengths, because no two people are the same.

“I was so amazed by the spirituality ceremonial practices I got to encounter.  The one ceremonial practice that I found very fascinating was the Water Ceremony that our elder Lisa instructed…Partaking in this ceremony has taught me how sacred water is. Water is life and without it none of us would be here, and that truly stood out to me. After being a participant we were each served a small amount of the extraordinary water but we were taught to be cautious not to allow a drop of water go to waste…

“I can certainly say the trip has allowed me to connect personally with the history of American Indian culture… Having the chance to be taught different pathways of opportunities with a face-to-face connection has shown me how important it is to learn by this style…In the future I hope to go out of my way and learn more about different indigenous cultures, and have an opportunity to pass down the knowledge that I have learned.”

Carson Ryan

“…we had a prodigious experience making birch bark baskets the same way as our ancestors. It proved challenging to many, and to a mob of amateurs, the bark was very hard to work with. Preceding the crafts, we learned about birch bark and how it would absorb water. After absorption, the exterior dark layer would be able to be scratched off, revealing a lighter interior, for you to create a juxtaposed image. After completing my basket, I remembered back to this lesson and applied it to my basket to create a tribute to the wildlife.

“As we progressed through these five days, I noticed that my perspective was changing. I was looking at things with a new level of appreciation and gratitude. The trees were no longer in my way, they were gifting us shade. I wasn't annoyed about getting my shoes muddy because that was just Mother Earth encapsulating my feet. I made sure to reevaluate what I was thinking and apply a new lens.

“Part of the new perspective played into the way I saw and connected with my peers. In the beginning, we all started as strangers and eventually developed the relationships into family. The Native American culture treats everyone as their own family, and if you're from the same clan you are actually considered to be in the same family. The friendships with these people grew at an exponential rate after the exposure of such an inclusive culture. From a mere five days, I can confidently say that I have made lifelong friends.”