FRENCHTOWN – “I really did not expect rope to come from this,” said fourth-grader Colter Zandi, as he worked to peel the bark, inch by inch, from the stringy fiber on the stick he held.
Making rope by hand can be a delicate process when you’re using the traditional Native American method.
Each stick of a “rope plant” must be cracked into four sections, stripped of its bark and twisted, just right, to make a piece of cord.
Zandi was one of dozens of Frenchtown Elementary students who spent Tuesday outside of the classroom learning about Native American traditions from Tim Ryan.
The heritage educator spent the entire afternoon with Jean Whaley and Kathy Gaul’s fourth-grade classes, teaching about the traditional “material culture” once used by Native American tribes in the area.
Ryan set up tepee just outside the school’s playground and took the students on a tour of the traditional shelter.
After they emerged from an educational session in Ryan’s tepee, he began showing them how to slowly crack, strip and twist “rope plants” into cordage.
“One of the reasons I do this is to dispel the myth of the hunter-gatherer way of life, that they barely survived off the land,” Ryan said.
Instead, hunting and gathering allowed tribes to gain an intimate knowledge of the environment, the patterns of the seasons and the habits of most of the wildlife around them.
Ryan also showed the students how to dig bitterroots – a timely lesson because the plants are usually ready for digging in late spring.
Decades ago, the teaching spot Ryan used may well have been filled with bitterroots and was a wintering site for the Salish, Pend d’Oreille and Kootenai people.
“It’s pretty fun. We’re learning to respect plants and animals,” Zandi said of the afternoon.
“Because that’s the way our ancestors lived,” said fellow fourth-grader Claire Bagnell.
Bagnell was impressed when Ryan used an antler to cut a rock and that the traditional methods of survival often involved what might be called environmentally friendly techniques today.
“Sometimes it’s a better way to live, it’s better for our Earth,” she said.
Ryan’s hands-on approach to learning stays with students, teacher Gaul said.
“This will be something they remember. When we go back into the classroom and talk about this stuff, it just means more. They have a picture in their head,” she said.
The fourth-grade social studies program focuses on Montana history and includes studies of Native American culture throughout the year. Gaul and third-grade teacher Dalene Norman won a Montana Office of Public Instruction Indian Education for All grant to bring Ryan to the school for two days.
Ryan’s EthnoTech LLC business focuses on heritage education, including a full kindergarten through high school curriculum in topics ranging from traditional ecological knowledge to traditional skills and tool use.
On Tuesday, not every stick ended up turning into a piece of rope. But Zandi finished with about seven inches of his very own handmade rope, which can be surprisingly tough when crafted correctly.
“That’s looking pretty good,” Ryan told Zandi.
Part of the the goal of the program was to have a real connection with a tribal member, Gaul said.
“As we teach Montana history, how in the world would you teach that without talking about Native Americans?” Gaul said. “Also, it’s about respect. Keeping them from developing stereotypes through respect and knowledge.”