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Sunday, August 11, 2013

Merrimack camp shows campers Native American history, culture

MERRIMACK – Karyn Burgess grew up surrounded by Native American culture.

Her father took many trips to a South Dakota reservation as a missionary and would always bring back gifts made by tribe members. ...

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MERRIMACK – Karyn Burgess grew up surrounded by Native American culture.

Her father took many trips to a South Dakota reservation as a missionary and would always bring back gifts made by tribe members.

After Burgess got to go to the reservation last year, she knew she wanted to share what she learned with others.

This summer, Burgess got that chance, leading a new program at Merrimack’s Camp Sargent, a day camp run by the local YMCA.

“They love being able to really have a tangible result from what they’re learning about,” Burgess said of her campers. “I like to make it as hands-on as possible. It’s camp; kids don’t want to be sitting here listening to me lecture.”

The new program teaches campers about Native American history and culture, showing them how Native Americans would have gathered food, how they would have furnished their homes and how they would have celebrated, with traditional music and dance.

The highlight of the program: a 17-foot authentic tepee, purchased by the camp with the help of a grant from a South Dakota company.

While the tepee was purchased two years ago, it was only installed this year after a summer stored in the camp’s boathouse.

“We didn’t want to put it up until we were ready to use it the right way,” camp director Randy Menken said.

Menken said the camp purchased the tepee after receiving a grant to expand its nature programs. While he wasn’t exactly sure how it would be used when it arrived last summer, he had been looking to expand the camp’s offerings for some time.

This winter, while thinking of ways to use the tepee and boost offerings for campers, Menken came up with the idea to run a Native American camp to give students an authentic taste of Native American life.

After emailing staff members to see whether anyone would be interested in running the camp, he heard from Burgess, who said it was the opportunity she was looking for.

The tepee was erected this spring, and now sits a few hundred feet from the edge of Naticook Lake, surrounded by trees. Inside the structure, campers’ artwork is hung on the walls, depicting Native American symbols and legends.

Native American camp was originally designed to be a specialty camp for which children could sign up for weeklong sessions throughout the summer. But in its first summer, Menken said the program didn’t get the enrollment numbers camp directors were hoping it would.

Instead, the program has been offered daily throughout the summer. Campers can choose to attend the program during their free periods each day.

Menken said that setup has been beneficial. Not only are more students participating in the program, it has also helped build interest that will help support a Native American specialty camp next summer.

Burgess said she has seen her numbers grow from fewer than 10 students each period at the beginning of the summer to full capacity most days in the last few weeks.

Burgess said she isn’t sure what draws kids to the program, but said it may be because students get to actually try out many of the practices they hear about.

When they learned about tribal dance, they danced. When they learned about how American Indians would hunt and fish to find their food, the students made their own fishing poles and bows and arrows out of sticks and other natural materials.

On Monday, the students were learning about dreamcatchers, which legend says should be hung above one’s bed to ward off bad dreams.

After reading a story about the handmade devices, they set out to make their own, sitting on the floor of the tepee.

Sarah Petros, 8, said she had never made a dreamcatcher before, but she was excited to be designing her own on Monday. She drew symbols around the edges of a paper circle, weaving colorful yarn in and out of holes that lined the edge, creating a web in the middle.

“I really like to get to learn the Native American ways,” Sarah said. “We get to do all the stuff they do.”

Elliot Troddyn, 8, was taking his time making his dreamcatcher. Having already owned one, he said he knew just how important they can be.

His other dreamcatcher started out with white string for its web. But not too long afterward, the strings turned blue, he said. His theory for the color change: all of the bad dreams caught up in the web.

“It definitely works,”
Elliot said.

Danielle Curtis can be reached at 594-6557 or dcurtis@nashua
telegraph.com. Also, follow Curtis
on Twitter (@Telegraph_DC).