Conway students learn about Native American culture in two-day program

Jennifer Lee of the Nolumbeka Project gives a talk on Native American history and culture to sixth graders at Conway Grammar School on Tuesday.

Jennifer Lee of the Nolumbeka Project gives a talk on Native American history and culture to sixth graders at Conway Grammar School on Tuesday. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Jennifer Lee of the Nolumbeka Project gives a talk on Native American history and culture to sixth graders inside a wigwam at Conway Grammar School on Tuesday.

Jennifer Lee of the Nolumbeka Project gives a talk on Native American history and culture to sixth graders inside a wigwam at Conway Grammar School on Tuesday. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Jennifer Lee of the Nolumbeka Project, center, gives a talk on Native American history and culture to sixth graders inside a wigwam at Conway Grammar School on Tuesday.

Jennifer Lee of the Nolumbeka Project, center, gives a talk on Native American history and culture to sixth graders inside a wigwam at Conway Grammar School on Tuesday. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Jennifer Lee of the Nolumbeka Project gives a talk on Native American history and culture to sixth graders at Conway Grammar School on Tuesday.

Jennifer Lee of the Nolumbeka Project gives a talk on Native American history and culture to sixth graders at Conway Grammar School on Tuesday. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

By CHRIS LARABEE

Staff Writer

Published: 10-10-2023 7:12 PM

CONWAY — Gathered on furs and blankets in a wigwam, Conway Grammar School students are getting a first-hand look at Native American history and culture over two days this week.

Throughout Tuesday and Wednesday, students and teachers are joining the Nolumbeka Project’s Jennifer Lee, a longtime educator tracing her roots back to the Northern Narragansett tribe, to learn about the cultures existing in North America before European settlers came in, while also dispelling some of the false histories that have been spread over the years.

“To know what happened can empower and inform you,” Lee said to the sixth grade class sharing the wigwam with her, adding that her own educational journey has helped her “know what my place is in the world right now.”

The two-day event has been spearheaded by Conway Grammar School parent Rachel Smith-Cote, who applied for a grant from the Massachusetts and Conway cultural councils, and the school administration, which chipped in to cover the rest of the event costs.

Smith-Cote said she was inspired to bring a new cultural experience to the school. After speaking with Principal Kristen Gordon, who was on board with the idea, she began working on applying for the grant to bring Lee to Conway. And while the event comes the day after Columbus/Indigenous Peoples Day, Smith-Cote said the timing is “serendipitous.”

“I think it’s incredibly important that everyone, especially students, understand the history of native people in this area and that it is a very much alive culture,” Smith-Cote said. “I don’t think there’s enough of that kind of education.”

Speaking to students on Tuesday, Lee emphasized the collective values of many Native American tribes to students and how the Europeans’ worldviews clashed with some Indigenous ideals, especially when it came to religion or ownership of land.

“It was a very, very sophisticated culture here and you can see some that today,” Lee said, noting that Native American tribes developed the world’s most advanced snowshoes and their lightweight birch canoes, which played a key role in European travels across the continent.

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In the modern world, Lee talked about the 574 Native American tribes that are recognized by the federal government, as well as the numerous tribes, such as her own, that aren’t recognized by the government. She also talked about the importance of powwows and the significance of the ceremonial dances that take place at them.

“It’s more than a dance,” Lee said, emphasizing the “spiritual, expressive and cultural” qualities they embody.

Speaking after her presentation to the sixth graders, Lee said she wants to share the true history of her ancestors with today’s generations.

“I wish that I had been taught this. … I had no idea native people still lived here,” she said, adding she has never stopped pursuing the history and knowledge of Native American cultures. “It’s been a lifelong journey.”

Lee returns for more presentations on Wednesday and Gordon said the school will continue to work with other local Native American representatives to bring this education to students.

“We don’t have a lot of diversity at Conway Grammar School, and this is a real-life and really experiential opportunity,” Gordon said. “To actually sit in a wigwam with a Native American is just incredible. … We want this to continue.”

Chris Larabee can be reached at clarabee@recorder.com or 413-930-4081.