Student project shines light on ‘alternate perspective’ of Deerfield history

By CHRIS LARABEE

Staff Writer

Published: 06-22-2023 12:31 PM

SOUTH DEERFIELD — Native American history is a standard element of the fourth grade curriculum. However, with Deerfield celebrating its 350th anniversary this year, Jennifer Smith’s class went one step further.

Throughout the year, Smith’s students at Deerfield Elementary School have been digging into the Connecticut River Valley’s Indigenous history through field trips on historic trails and visits to local museums. They wrapped up their year-long project with an art installation in the school’s pavilion that is dedicated to local tribes and the native plants those tribes have used for thousands of years.

A major goal of the project, as explained by Smith and her students, was to increase the awareness of Native Americans’ presence and roles in the region for more than 10,000 years, and to hopefully spread that to others in the school and community by installing the artwork in the school’s common space.

“The point of this project was to learn this information and to teach it to other people,” explained fourth grader Emerson Clark, who based his project on the Woronoco tribe and pitcher plants.

In her address to the several grades in attendance on Tuesday, Smith said she wanted her class to explore the “alternate perspective” of Deerfield’s history through the people who were here first, adding that “their perspective should have a great deal of weight in our history.” She noted it was an opportune time to pursue such a project with all the historical reflection happening in town.

Like Smith, fourth grader Clover Metcalf said the project provides a chance to explore a different side of the region’s history.

“We should acknowledge them, just the same as we acknowledge ourselves,” Clover said, adding that her project focused on the Wampanoag tribe and fireweed.

To conclude the project, Smith also invited Nolumbeka Project President David Brule to chat with the students and answer any questions they might have about Native American history or culture. Brule, who traces his roots to the Nehantic tribe and also serves on the Nehantic Tribal Council, shared a few of the remaining Nehantic words that are still known.

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“There are all sorts of Indigenous programs going on,” Brule said of the region, adding that events focusing this deeply on Native American history are a recent, and welcome, development. “Five years ago, this wouldn’t have happened.”

Students asked Brule about his wampum necklace, as well as his thoughts on Indigenous artifacts being stored in museums, which he said is an extremely complex debate, as museums can bring awareness to tribes. However, museums also raise the questions of who owns an artifact and was it recovered in a humane way, or was it stolen from a grave.

He referenced the 2022 return of Wounded Knee artifacts from the Barre Museum Association to the Lakota people as a recent, positive example of artifacts finding their way to their rightful home.

Brule added that the kids are fortunate to be growing up in a place that has so much history around it. The extent of this goes back to prehistoric times, as the Connecticut River Valley is also a hotbed for dinosaur tracks and other archaeological finds.

He also shared a personal story about how, when he was digging a hole in his yard to bury a family pet, he found a sharpened stone in the ground that was likely crafted by a local tribe roughly 7,000 years ago. Brule said he still gets goosebumps when reflecting on the “power” artifacts like these hold, which make “you think about the past.”

After this conversation, Clover said she came to another realization about these artifacts.

“How can we say we found [an artifact] and it’s ours,” she said, “if there were already people here?”

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

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