Herkimer BOCES students get lesson on Iroquois culture

Oneida Indian Nation Assistant Director of Education Randy Phillips explains to Herkimer-Fulton-Hamilton-Otsego BOCES special education students how Iroquois arrows were feathered to make them spin through the air to increase speed and enter further into an animal during a hunt. Phillips presented to students on Jan. 23, at the Herkimer BOCES William E. Busacker Complex in Herkimer. (photo submitted)

HERKIMER — Students in several Herkimer-Fulton-Hamilton-Otsego BOCES special education classes recently had the opportunity to view for themselves aspects of Native American culture they had been studying in class.

“A lot of it is: It’s good for them to see some of this stuff they learned about and really expand on some of that,” Oneida Indian Nation Assistant Director of Education Randy Phillips said.

Phillips presented to the Herkimer BOCES students on Jan. 23 at the BOCES William E. Busacker Complex in Herkimer and showed them items such as fur clothing, lacrosse sticks and an Iroquois crossbow.

The Herkimer BOCES special education classes previously read the book “Eagle Song” and learned more about the ideas in the book. Seeing the items in person and hearing about them helps the students connect with the information and not feel isolated from it, Herkimer BOCES special education teaching assistant Mary Tomaso said.

“I’m so glad that these things are here for the kids to see,” Tomaso said, after the presentation, to Phillips. “Otherwise, it’s just words and books.”

Phillips, who is a retired sixth-grade teacher from the Oneida City School District, regularly presents to students in the region – including the Herkimer BOCES Honors Program multiple times and now the special education students.

He showed the students many items including clothing made from various animals furs; moccasins; headdresses; food; equipment for games such as lacrosse and snow snake; hunting weapons and equipment such as the Iroquois longbow, arrows, quiver, fish trap and fishing spear; war weapons such as a war club, a hammer/ax and a stone knife; instruments such as a steer horn rattle and water drums; wampum belts and a longhouse model.

“Everything we had was from nature,” he said.

Phillips had students guess which animals pieces of fur clothing were made from, and students frequently identified the correct animals. He also told students that corn, beans and squash were called “the three sisters” because they were major sources of food and were planted together in mounds.

Additionally, Phillips taught students how to say hello, goodbye and thank you in the Iroquois language, which he said is unfortunately dying.

Iroquois to English translations sometimes come out as descriptive phrases, Phillips said. For example, the Iroquois way to say “chocolate” translates to “it tastes sweet,” and the Iroquois way to say “January” translates to “someone’s ears are freezing off,” he said.

Following the presentation, students asked many questions – including about food, trapping, Native American tribes, more about the language and how babies were carried. Phillips happened to have a cradle board used for carrying babies on hand to show the students in response to that question.

Phillips said he hopes that students came away from the presentation having a little more insight into the life of an Iroquois person and a sense that there are differences among natives across the country.

“I want the kids to realize that just as there are differences in them, there are differences in natives – where they live, their housing, their food,” he said. “I think now is a time with many ethnic issues. Ethnic diversity is huge in the forefront. The reason we struggle with ethnicity is we don’t understand it. It’s easier to not understand people when you don’t understand their story.”


By Paul Wager

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