Pawling Fourth Graders Immerse Themselves in Native American Culture During Annual Field Trip


Smoke from a wood fire filled an authentic life-sized replica of a longhouse, as Pawling Elementary School fourth graders enjoyed their annual field trip to the Institute for American Indian Studies (IAIS) on November 17.

Students inspected every corner of the space, from the hickory cordage tying together the frame to the artfully-placed bark sheltering the structure, while museum educator Darlene Kascak asked the group to imagine life as the indigenous children who lived in similar homes hundreds of years ago.

The request matched the goal of the trip perfectly; fourth-grade teacher Diane O’Brien explained that identifying the differences between how Native Americans lived hundreds of years ago and how we live today, whether indigenous or immigrant, is an integral part of the fourth graders’ current social studies unit, “Cultural Quest: New York Storytellers.”

“Our study focuses on the Native American groups, primarily Algonkin and Haudenosaunee (commonly known as Iroquois), that inhabited this region,” she said. “The aim of the unit is to give the students a true understanding of the Native American way of life in this northern woodland area so long ago. What better way than to experience a piece of that for themselves?”

Located in Washington, CT, IAIS is a museum and research center that explores the indigenous history of New England through archaeology, education and exhibits. The museum features indoor and outdoor exhibits that display artifacts and teach visitors about prehistoric to contemporary Native American life. Pawling fourth-grade classes have been visiting IAIS for over 15 years to provide a practical link to their classroom studies and offer a tangible glimpse into Native American culture.

Pawling’s fourth graders dove into the history and culture of local Native American groups, exploring a mural depicting daily life, inspecting cultural artifacts and learning about the indigenous people’s connection to the earth – and how that connection helped build their culture.

“We learn about how they formed their culture through interactions with the natural environment,” said O’Brien. “The realization that the land provided them with everything they needed is especially important for the students to understand.”

This concept was not lost on fourth grader Emilia Facchin, who said that her favorite part of the trip was learning about the many ways the Native Americans used the animals that they hunted.

“I liked learning about how they respected nature and didn’t kill for reasons aside from hunting and using every part of the animals,” said Emilia. “I wish more people did that now because sometimes people hunt just for fun. Maybe we could learn from what they did.”

Another favorite exhibit was a replicated Algonkin Village, an outdoor space depicting features common to a village of its kind from 350 to 1000 years ago. Students were invited to spend time in the longhouse and wigwam and enjoyed traditional Native American games and activities.

One of the games, “Hunter and Hunted,” was the trip’s highlight for student Billy Botsakos.

“We had to sneak up on people the way that a hunter would have to sneak up on an animal,” he said. “We learned how to be really quiet so they couldn’t tell where we were coming from. I was pretty good – I tricked people twice!”

IAIS educator and Mohawk tribe member Irene Norman said that she has an additional goal in mind when leading field trips: to show students that Native American culture is still alive and well in the United States.

“The kids love exploring the village but much of that aspect of our museum is based on a historical perspective prior to European contact,” said Norman. “It’s a lot of fun to reveal that I, myself, am Native American. Watching their eyes widen as they realize that they’re speaking to one right now is so rewarding.”

O’Brien said that the trip is impactful for the students year after year – especially after their return to the classroom.

"The students are proud to apply the things they learned in class to the museum’s exhibits and activities while we’re there,” she said. “Not only that, but we often refer back to things we learned on the trip in school afterward.”

“Watching the kids’ eyes light up and hearing them speak so excitedly about what they’ve learned throughout is wonderful,” O’Brien continued. “Each year we book the following year’s trip right away so we don’t miss out, and this was no exception!”