Southwest Middle School might have one of the smallest Native American populations in the Lawrence district, but on Wednesday, the entire student body participated in an event meant to foster relationships between Southwest kids and the diverse array of tribal cultures found on the Haskell Indian Nations University campus.
“We all have different ceremonies and practices, but as a people we are united,” Summer Powell, a Haskell sophomore and Navajo tribe member, said of distinctions between America’s indigenous communities.
That’s the message Powell hoped to deliver Wednesday at “Share Southwest,” a schoolwide cultural exchange program — featuring Native games, stories, customs and dances — organized by Haskell students and Southwest’s recently launched Native Club. Powell, who hails from Arizona originally, said she was motivated to share her culture with Southwest students partly as a way to connect with her new city.
Southwest, she said, was a random pick based on poking around Google Maps. But reaching kids in middle school, a pivotal time in any young person’s life, was especially important to her.
Powell said most non-Native kids are exposed to American Indian culture through inaccurate — and for many, offensive — portrayals in films like “Pocahontas” and “Peter Pan.” It’s important, she said, to show kids at a young age that Native Americans aren’t the stereotypes seen on TV and in the movies.
“We all come in different colors, different shades of colors, and we come from different backgrounds as well,” said Powell, a communications major. “I think that representation needs to be out there within media and within education — just anything we can do to make sure we can teach these kids not all of us are the same.”
And the kids at Southwest, she said, seemed responsive to that idea. “You could see the brightness in their eyes,” Powell said of her time with the “excited” students.
Romina Hernandez, a sixth-grader and member of Southwest’s Native Club, helped organize and host the event with her fellow club members. Romina, a non-Native student, said she became involved in her school’s club because she wanted to learn about cultures other than her own.
“This event has been really fun,” Romina said Wednesday, taking a break from her hosting duties. “Getting to see a different culture and what’s important to them — that was really cool.”
Another highlight for Romina: Watching Haskell students perform traditional dances dressed in regalia laden with shimmering metallic “jingles.” The colorful garb — and the generations-old lore behind it — originates from Ojibwa communities in the upper Midwest and Canada.
Laura Grinage, who sponsors Southwest’s Native Club, thinks her school may be “in a unique position to lead” the way on cultural exchange projects like Share Southwest. Because the school’s student body is largely middle class, she explained, with so many students lucky enough to have stable and supportive family lives, Southwest might face fewer challenges in delivering these kinds of large-scale events than some other schools in the district.
She said the whole school seemed excited by the idea of hosting Share Southwest, with some classes devoting a few days to culturally relevant lesson plans — reading Native authors in English classes, for example — to prime students for Wednesday’s program.
And students, Grinage happily reported, seemed to be on their best behavior throughout the day, listening intently and even having some fun playing Native games and learning Native customs.
“It is really refreshing, especially because I think our climate, our news — we’re bombarded all the time with how divided we are,” said Grinage, who teaches Spanish and world language. “My heart just hurts from seeing the absolute mutual interest and care and respect.”
The experience, she said, left her feeling truly touched at what can happen when young people work together to find common ground. Grinage said some of her students — she counts a “core group” of about 35 kids in the Native Club —who were shy beforehand seemed empowered by their work in planning and hosting the event.
She’d like to continue working with Haskell students in the future, she said. And Powell, the Haskell student who originally reached out to Southwest earlier this fall, agreed, adding that she’d welcome the opportunity to visit other schools in Lawrence.
“Those are the things that I want to see from this, is really putting these kids in charge of what is going to happen and how it’s going to happen and sort of stepping into that next stage of their life where they’re the kids who are out visiting younger kids,” Grinage said of her students. “Carrying on that (idea) that this is an identity that matters, that people want to know about.”