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Lippman school bonds with Northern Cheyenne Nation

By admin Published: November 11, 2011

Native Americans often teach with stories, and Norma Wolfchief-Gourneau told a compelling one to students at the Lippman School Thursday morning.

Wolfchief-Gourneau, the former vice president of the Northern Cheyenne Nation, along with two other tribal leaders, visited Lippman to share their culture and set the stage for a May field trip that 10 Lippman middle school students will take to their reservation in southeast Montana.

Video by Akron Beacon Journal education reporter John Higgins

She told the students how a friend had spent almost two years making the dress she was wearing, sewn from three elk skins with fringes and detailed beadwork typical of the Cheyenne style.

Her friend is getting on in years and told her that this would be the last dress she would make.

''So I'm very proud to show off her beadwork; these are her designs and she made all of this,'' she said.

She also showed the students a fan made from a hawk's right wing.

''My brother gave this to me,'' she said. ''He told me 'when you start dancing again, I want you to use this.' So he gave me this fan.''

She explained that in the Northern Cheyenne culture, people withdraw from ceremonies, dances and other social events when they lose a loved one. The mourning period lasts a year.

''We just stay home in respect to the person that died. For me, it was my mother who died, and so I didn't get to dance and to participate for a year,'' she said.

But then her husband died.

''My dress sat there,'' she said. ''My moccasins sat in the closet. My fan sat in the closet. But it's been over a year now, so now I went through a ceremony that our medicine men do. It's like a welcome back into the community, so I can come back and do the dancing and participate in our powwows and our social stuff. So it's with honor that I wear this dress because I've completed the mourning period and now I can actually go out there and dance again.''

That's a cultural tradition the Northern Cheyenne people share with the Jewish children who attend Lippman, located at the Shaw Jewish Community Center in West Akron.

''There is a year of mourning in the Jewish tradition too that is as old as the religion itself,'' said Lippman's Head of School, Sam Chestnut, who arranged the opportunity because of his family's longstanding relationship with the Northern Cheyenne Nation.

Although not all of Lippman's students are Jewish, he hopes the exchange will be as life-changing for the students as it was for him when he first visited the reservation as child growing up in Seattle.

''My father has been the general counsel for the Northern Cheyenne for 39 years,'' Sam Chestnut said. ''When I was probably in fifth grade, we went out as a whole family to the reservation and stayed on a Cheyenne ranch there with a family. It was transformative.''

His father, Chestnut jokes, could be considered the first Northern Cheyenne Jew.

''My father, in the process of his work with them, was given a Cheyenne name and honored in that way,'' he said.

Last year, when Sam Chestnut was Head of School for the Lillian and Betty Ratner School in Pepper Pike, he took 30 seventh- and eighth-graders to the reservation. He hopes to repeat the trip this year, but with a smaller group.

Richard Littlebear and Barbara Braided Hair also made the journey to Akron this week.

Littlebear is the president of Chief Dull Knife College, a two-year community college on the reservation, which covers about 444,000 acres and is home to 4,868 Northern Cheyenne people out of nearly 10,000 enrolled tribal members.

Littlebear gave a brief history of the Northern Cheyenne people, including the devastating U.S. government policy of stamping out American Indian language and culture by forcing children to attend boarding schools in far-away states.

''First of all, they tried to kill the speakers of the language,'' Littlebear said after the presentation. ''Then they tried to kill the languages and the culture and that's still going on.''

Many tribal members no longer speak the Cheyenne language, which is taught at Chief Dull Knife College, he said.

''The consequences have had a generational effect and we're still trying to get over that,'' Littlebear said. ''When you attack a language, you're actually attacking the identity of a people. That's what the United States did.''

He hopes the Lippman students learn from the exchange that the reservation is not a museum.

''We're not historical beings,'' Littlebear said. ''We are still very vital here today. That's where the exchange is. A lot of things we talked about are part of our culture, part of our heritage and all that. But there also is a realization that we've done a lot of adaptation to the present-day culture.''

Chestnut told the students that he and Littlebear envision creating an enduring bond between the school and the Northern Cheyenne people.

''How do you live in this world, but hold on to your traditions?'' Chestnut asked. ''We all, Jewish, not Jewish, Christian, Northern Cheyenne, we all go through this world working on that in terms of our own heritage and who we are and to be proud of that. That's the spirit of what we're doing and just one field trip doesn't really accomplish that. Building a relationship hopefully will accomplish that.''

John Higgins can be reached at 330-996-3792 or jhiggins@thebeaconjournal.com. Read the education blog at http://education.ohio.com/.

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