History became an immersive subject matter for students at St. Mary Catholic School in Newton last week, as Jim "Two Crows" Wallen was on hand Friday to give one of his interactive presentations on the lifestyle and traditions of Native Americans.
Wallen, a speaker from Independence, Missouri, shared stories that he told students were likely spread among regional tribes, perhaps even at the site of the school in years past, including the story of "A Dun Horse" — a tale of a special medicine horse that brought good luck to a Pawnee warrior — and "The Lame Warrior and the Skeleton" — about a wounded Arapaho being protected by a mystical skeleton while in enemy territory.
Additionally, Wallen had various artifacts to show students and explain how they were utilized by the tribes, including the uses for different furs from animals native (some still so) to the region — from the skunk and badger fur that made good hats for children to white-tailed deer hides that were often used to make clothing, including the garb Wallen wore while presenting.
"It actually took three deer hides to make this shirt; one for the front, one for the back and one for the sleeves," Wallen said.
Other uses he illustrated included warriors camouflaging themselves in a wolf hide to hunt buffalo for food, while he noted bear and buffalo hides were used for their warmth.
More tools Wallen showcased ranged from the money (wampum) used by the Native Americans to the tapestry on which events were recorded to mark the years to the "buffalo chips" that made up the kindling for cooking fires. Finding the latter was often a job for the females of the tribe, but Wallen noted he has gone out in search of the dried buffalo droppings himself and — after some trial and error — was informed of the trick to find out how the "chips" are dry enough to be kindling; you kick one.
"If it moves, you pick it up," Wallen said. "If it doesn't, you leave it alone."
Giving students an opportunity to both learn and interact with the past is a big part of why Wallen started presenting — doing 300 performances (of 19 different historical programs) and visiting at least 100 schools in an average year.
Through his work, Wallen has presented in 46 states and he said the joy for him still comes from seeing the students connect with the material given that hands-on format — something St. Mary principal Philip Stutey was happy to bring to Newton after being made aware of the speaker through school patrons.
"His storytelling is incredible, so just learning the history through stories was really powerful for (the students)," Stutey said. "We tried to get it during January, which is Kansas History Month, but obviously travel during that time of the year is a little bit more difficult, so we thought we'd bring him in the fall. Our fifth graders, for instance, are starting up a Native American unit, so what a good way to bring history to life."
Bringing history to life is at the core of Wallen's presentations, and he certainly lives it. In his stop at St. Mary, Wallen noted he has hunted with both modern and ancient weapons, made his own outfits (with more than 1,200 hours put into the clothing he wore on Friday) and, like the Native Americans, has eaten a variety of the animals he talks about — with the exception of skunk.
Following the presentations, Wallen said he hopes students will be encouraged to continue learning and that the message he shares will continue to resonate with them.
"I want kids to experience history," Wallen said. "Not so much the dates; I want to show them how history affected the people and what it meant to the people, because that's really what history's about."