Students learn about Native American culture |

Students learn about Native American culture

Collin Smith

— There’s fact and fiction, and it’s all history.

The eighth-grade social studies classes at Craig Middle School are learning that lesson in their local history units.

“When you look at history, whether in a textbook, or in the newspaper or on TV, you have to look at it with a critical eye,” said Alicia Townsend, CMS social studies teacher.

She pointed to Nathan Meeker, the town of Meeker’s namesake, who was one of the antagonists in a bloody confrontation with Ute Native Americans in 1879, known as the Meeker Massacre.

But Townsend’s classes have not learned about that yet.

The classes begin the unit by studying the Ute tribe lifestyle. They learn what it was like for the Native Americans to survive and prosper through studying their culture and doing hands-on fieldwork.

“We’re trying to show them what is was like to live then,” Townsend said. “If we can get these guys to see the Ute did (these things) for thousands of years and had a very efficient way of living, then we can get them to see from the Ute’s perspective.”

Tuesday, that meant trying to make fire, not with a lighter and gasoline, but with a board, a stick and some tinder.

Townsend had tried to get a fire started with the same wooden tools she was about to offer her students, but hadn’t been able to get a flame to spark. She even warned her students they would get very frustrated before it was all said and done.

Funny enough for Townsend, some of the kids had done this kind of thing before.

While she tried to teach the class about the process involved in making fires, such as why there was a notch in the board (for air to get to the fire, students said) or why you always find dry rocks to line the fire pit with (because wet rocks explode, students said), some students were already ahead of the curve.

“For a lot of these ranch kids, this is their life,” Townsend said. “They know things like if you have a jug of water you want to keep cool, you wrap a wet rag around it because evaporation cools things off. A lot of them know how to survive in the wilderness.”

Tyler Ripka, for one, has started fire from friction before, but not for survival.

“I did it for fun,” he said. “I have those kinds of curiosities sometimes.”

Their local history coursework culminates in a fieldtrip to the battlefield at Milk Creek, where the Uncompahgre Ute fought U.S. soldiers, who were there by Meeker’s request. Townsend, eighth-grade social studies teacher Drew Morris and science teacher Norm Yoast lead the kids through several exercises that show them firsthand something of what a late 19th century battlefield might have been like.

The fieldtrip is an important component of the local history unit, Townsend said.

“These kids don’t get to take that many fieldtrips,” she said. “They don’t get a hands-on view of history a lot of times, so it’s really nice to be able to take them out of the classroom to where they can see and touch things.”

The course has grown organically during the past 15 years as historians have learned more about the context around the battle, Townsend said.

“This has been a process of moving forward in our understanding, first of Nathan Meeker’s personality, then the Ute’s personality and why they couldn’t live together,” Townsend said. “The Ute were nervous because they knew about (the) Sand Creek (massacre), where soldiers went in and slaughtered Indians just to slaughter them; and the soldiers were nervous because (the battle at Little Big Horn) had recently happened, and both sides knew that a fight would be bad for everybody.”

Townsend’s student, Brittany Madigan, 13, enjoys this slice of history class because it’s closer to her world than some of the other required readings.

“It’s fun to learn about because Meeker it is such a close town,” Madigan said. “I don’t know that much about the Meeker Massacre yet, but we’re gonna learn that soon.”

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