Indian Trails and Towns in Ohio from Archeological Atlas of Ohio, 1914. Published at Transportation History Sources, RailsandTrails.com
Since I usually have only about ten minutes to one hour with any audience, I like to give people a sound bite about the history of the First People. I show them a handy blow-up globe of the Earth and point out the major continents, such as Asia and North America.
Then I highlight that the predominant theory of archeologists of how Native Americans came to North America. The theory is that they originated in Asia, probably Mongolia, and that tens of thousands of years ago, migrated across the Bering land bridge to present-day Alaska, and eventually through Canada and into the United States.
I don’t dwell on this because it is common knowledge to many people, especially children who learn it in their social studies classes. However, there are many people who don’t know it, so I just touch on it for everyone’s benefit.
History and geography
In this sound bite, I note that Native Americans built a society and culture thousands of years ago. Since there were several hundred different tribes or nations here over the millennia, I simply point out the major groupings on a map that I display.
As I engage an audience, I probe them for facts about how Native Americans differed in these geographical areas. For instance, I ask them what they know about the horse culture and its impact on the First People.
I try to stay away from government and military history as it relates to Native Americans. For instance, I don’t talk about the Trail of Tears or why Indians live on reservations throughout the country. I try to keep the discussion upbeat.
Ohio Indian trails
I show a map made by the Ohio Historical Society that shows the Indian trails that existed in Ohio during the nineteenth century. I note how they were the primary routes of travel and communications for the various Indian tribes here. I point out how modern-day highways overlay some of those trails.
Again, there is government and military history associated with these trails, and I try to avoid delving into it, unless someone asks about it. Getting bogged down in these details distracts from the rich heritage that I want to share with people through the interpretation of my other subjects.
I explain that the many Indian tribes here each had their own spoken languages, and that they couldn’t communicate with each other orally. I note that somehow, someone, sometime came up with a system of sign language that spread throughout the continent and that everyone, Indian and European, could use to communicate with each other.
I get my audiences to participate in brief conversations using sign language. First, I demonstrate some basic words and hand symbols. Then I introduce them to a situation in which they can respond using sign language. A favorite one of mine is how Indians and Europeans traded goods with each other.
I usually highlight that Indian villages contrasted mainly on the basis of their location. For instance, Eastern Woodland Indians lived in permanent villages using longhouses or wigwams, nomadic tribes of the Great Plains lived in tipis, and cliff dwellers of the Southwest lived in adobe buildings.
Village life includes family life. I mention the contrasting roles of men, women, children, and elders. Most audiences know that men were hunters and warriors and women did all things domestic, but I go into some detail about this, so that everyone can appreciate who did what on a daily basis.
Hunting and gathering
I discuss how the First People survived and thrived by living off the land. I like to joke that they didn’t go to CVS for medicines or to Giant Eagle for food, and everyone gets that right away. Audiences typically know that Indians hunted for food, but not everyone is aware that they were expert in identifying and using roots, plants, and herbs.
This is usually where I introduce tools that Indians used to hunt and gather. I display my self-made primitive throwing sticks, knifes, stone axe, and baskets. My bow and arrow demonstration comes into play here, and it morphs nicely into my discussion on warfare.
I note that Indian men were predominantly the warriors in any village, but I highlight that some women went on raids and into battle, as well. I display some weapons that warriors typically used, such as atlatl, bow and arrow, lance, and shield. I also note, if I didn’t do so before, that the advent of the horse dramatically changed the nature of warfare on the Great Plains.
Arts and crafts
Here, I cover a gamut of subjects that have been my favorites for a long time. I display and describe my beaded objects, baskets, children’s toys, clothing, and hat.
Music is a big part of my interpreter practice. I explain how important was in Native American. I play my Native American flutes for my audiences and I describe their construction, origin, and uses. I accompany my own singing with drum and rattles. I get people to play the drum and rattles while I conduct circle dancing with anyone who will join in the dance.
The newest addition to my interpretive repertoire is storytelling. Done properly, this is truly an art form. I always keep my eyes and ears open for potential material to incorporate into this craft. I look for Native American stories and legends that I can deliver in about 15 minutes. I practice diligently to make them memorable.
Making a primitive bow and arrows is a craft that deserves a blog all by itself. Stay tuned for this on my website!
Tom Romito is an interpreter of Native American Culture, a facilitator of organizations who want to grow, and a Reiki practitioner dedicated to helping people heal. Tom shares stories and skills to help you energize your world.