Outside, in a few inches of snow, Nerstrand Elementary School fourth graders erected a tipi with the help of a local historian.
From inside the tipi the students learned about Dakota culture and history. The lesson fit with the rural charter school’s emphasis on hands-on learning.
Larry Richie brought a tipi, the traditional home of the Dakota people. The students help him set it up. They then filed in and sat around a fire, just as the Dakota people did for centuries. The fire’s smoke accumulated for a while, but eventually began to billow out the top.
A dreamcatcher and some buckskin clothes hung from the tipi’s walls. Blankets were spread across the ground for the kids to sit on.
Before Richie began his lesson, he turned on a Bluetooth speaker to play some Dakota flute music. He said, if a neighboring tipi owner was practicing the flute, it would provide a similar ambiance.
The students and teachers referred to each other as “friends,” which Richie said is actually the meaning of the word “Dakota.”
Richie said that, while it was most commonly the men who hunted, the women would sometimes be involved as well.
While he discussed the Dakota’s traditions and history, some of the kids held sticks over the fire and cooked different foods, including chicken and venison. Chicken was not a common food for the Dakota; Richie said it was meant to represent a passenger pigeon, a now-extinct animal.
There was also wild rice, which they cooked using in a wooden bowl by using heated rocks from the fire. Each piece of food was served on a the underside of a glistening clamshell. Water was kept in a turtle shell.
Richie focused on the communal aspect of the Dakota people, emphasizing the fact that they were unable to survive without each other. If the fire went out while they were asleep, they would pop into a neighbor’s tipi and get a torch to relight theirs.
“If you’re gonna be a Dakota, you gotta have some friends,” Richie said. “You can’t live alone. You’re gonna starve. If you get hurt, you would have no one to care for you. You’ll have to depend on friends and you’ll have to be a friend.”
Many of the kids laughed at the idea of getting married at only 15 years old, but Richie pointed out that many Dakota people once only lived to be about 40.
He also pointed out a gift the Dakota people passed on to future generations of Americans.
“The greatest gift they gave us is how they made decisions,” he said. “When Thomas Jefferson, for example, wrote the Constitution — he was one of the authors. He was amazed at the way the Indians made their decisions. They sat in a circle, like this, and everybody got one vote — an equal vote.
“In some cases, the women could vote. In some cases, they couldn’t. In some cases, the men couldn’t vote. But it was always a group decision. And the Dakota chief only had as much power as he had ability to convince his followers. So, an Indian chief is not all-powerful. He does not have an army to enforce what he says. He’s dependent on his ability to convince people that it was the right thing to do.”