With Assist from UB, Tuscarora Students Preparing CD-ROM Focusing on Ancestors' 18th Century Journey

High-tech approach preserves oral histories, teaches many lessons

Release Date: March 8, 2001

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Middle school students at the Tuscarora Indian School in the Niagara-Wheatfield School District have been working since late September to produce "Skarooran Journey: A Tuscaroran Adventure," an educational journey that explores aspects of the history, language and culture of these ancient eastern woodlands people through a student-designed, multimedia, CD-ROM program.

The project, undertaken with the assistance of the University at Buffalo's Graduate School of Education (GSE), is a complex undertaking that involves not only the exploration of the tribe's traditional practice, but its very identity as a living culture in the 21st century. It requires students to develop important literacy and technology skills, including the collection of oral histories, narrative writing, creation of interactive learning games, art work, photography, animation, production design and the creation of real-time movies.

The project was originated by Janneke Bogyo, the technology teacher at the Tuscarora school and lecturer in learning and instruction in the GSE, and Robin Sullivan, GSE instructional design coordinator. They conducted research last summer, meeting with the school's teachers about what material should be included and developed a project prototype for their further review.

Today, "Skarooran Journey" involves not only the middle school students, but teachers, high school students and UB students Shannon Carlin, a graduate student in education and the humanities -- two fields married by this project -- and Brenda Styne, an undergraduate in computer art who spends considerable time at the school helping students with the overall design of the project and the production of individual works of art to be included.

Carlin says the experience has been educational and community-building.

"Since the Tuscaroran have a tradition of oral history," she says, "the larger tribal group is a major treasury of cultural information and history for the students. The larger community is also the principal audience for what they produce here."

"Skarooran Journey" is constructed around the 80-year migration in the 18th century of the Tuscaroran people from their home in North Carolina, where they were settled by 800 AD, northward to Iroquois Nation territories. Originally a group nearly 6,000 strong, historians report that after the Tuscarorans encountered Europeans in the 17th century, Carolinian colonists decimated the tribe through land-theft, kidnapping, the degradation of Tuscaroran women and the imposition of slavery.

Peaceful Tuscaroran attempts to gain relief from the colonists failed and war broke out in 1711. The Tuscarorans appealed to the Iroquois League for assistance and were admitted to the confederacy as its sixth nation. Over the next eight decades, under the protection of the Iroquois, most of the remaining Tuscarorans moved north through Pennsylvania to settle in New York State, where the Iroquois held sway. By the time they arrived, their numbers had diminished radically and today they number only in the several hundreds, most of them in Western New York and southern Ontario.

Despite the incredible hardships imposed upon them by man, time and nature, the Tuscarorans have maintained their cultural identity. Along their migratory route, they established a number of settlements, and Carlin says that "Skarooran Journey" uses five of these settlements as tools with which to explore many aspects of the group's cultural life. These include architectural techniques, social organization, family life, agricultural methods, game-playing and spiritual orientation in the various settlements.

The process of cultural discovery requires students to record oral histories of older members of their community and to incorporate their recollections into the story. The students came up with a large store of material on historical events, family histories, music, folklore and explications of clan structure, games and sporting, music, recipes and other material.

Their instructors say the preparation of these stories has helped the children learn many things: how to collect first-person narratives; how "truth" is colored deeply by the perspective of the teller; how new technologies can be used to preserve ancient aspects of a culture, and the role played by specific cultural traits in helping to maintain group identity through time and tremendous adversity.

Tuscarora means "hemp gatherers" in Iroquoian, a name that derives from their use of Indian hemp for fiber and medicine. The Tuscarora were expert hunters with a strong agricultural bent. They depended heavily upon the cultivation of corn, which, with beans and squash, constitute the "Three Sister Crops" that today compete with Big Macs and pizza in the students' culinary imaginations.

"In investigating the historic relationship of corn to a wide range of Tuscaroran traditions," explains Carlin, "the students have learned things like old corn-lore and have become familiar with the dances, music and other customs that articulate the importance of the corn harvest to the maintenance of tribal life."

She adds that the students are able to relate traditional practice to current cultural practices, like corn-husking bees. This helps them to better understand, for instance, the symbolism attached to the role of the "Keeper of the Corn," a trustworthy member of the tribe whose job is to ensure the passing down of high-quality corn seed from year to year.

"All of this becomes part of the story they tell," Styne says, "along with traditional corn-grinding methods or how to make fry bread and Tuscaroran corn soup."

The narrative describes how and why the group planted huge orchards all along their migration route and what became of them. Teachers say the students have come to better understand the Round Lodge tradition of their people, a tradition that helps explain their current social organization and value systems.

They also have come to understand how some of their cultural history -- that of the early 20th century - "disappeared" because Tuscaroran children were taken from the reservations, forced into "white schools" and prohibited from learning their culture or language. It is there, says Sullivan, that a major part of the historical narrative is lost.

Styne explains that in developing the artistic design of the project, the students learn how the art work itself can be used to illustrate the story or may actually help structure the narrative.

"I also help them develop 'discovery tools' -- meaningful icons like an arrowhead, a corn stalk or a lacrosse stick that link the viewer to related stories or take them deeper into the Tuscaroran narrative through the use of timelines, maps, musical excerpts, quick-time movies, animations or still photos."

The exploration of so many topics in the humanities could not be accomplished without technological tools and guidance and instruction in their use. GSE students are helping the children learn to use digital cameras, camcorders and MacIntosh iMovie software. High school students in the Niagara-Wheatfield district are helping the younger children animate some of their art work for inclusion.

Updated information on the DC-ROM project can be found on the Tuscarora Indian School Web site at http://www.tuscaroraschool.org.

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