Starksboro kids get some hands-on lessons in Abenaki ways

STARKSBORO — It’s the Thursday before Thanksgiving — the day the Robinson Elementary School cafeteria dishes out its holiday meal: roast turkey and gravy, mashed potatoes, stuffing, squash, cranberry sauce, apple crisp. (Also broccoli).
In Ruth Beecher’s third/fourth-grade classroom, something else is cooking that goes straight to the heart of that first Thanksgiving — indigenous Americans’ foods. In an ongoing study of the Abenaki, Vermont’s first people, today’s lesson focuses on three foods central to the Abenaki diet: corn, beans and squash. Especially corn.
A high point for everyone in Beecher’s room today is grinding corn they grew themselves and using it to fry and eat something resembling an Abenaki corn cake — something not so different from what might have been eaten at the first Thanksgiving in 1621.
As is well known, close to half of the 102 Pilgrims who sailed to America on the Mayflower in 1620 died that first winter. The very survival of the 57 or so who lived to celebrate that first Thanksgiving feast depended in large part on the kindness of strangers. Wampanoag Native Americans taught the struggling newcomers to hunt local game and to grow local crops, chief among these the three sisters: corn, beans and squash.
Back in the Starksboro classroom, Beecher is writing a word on the whiteboard.
She explains it’s a Native American word for corn cakes.
This morning, her 15 students will be drawing and painting corn, learning about the healthfulness of corn, beans and squash, and making something as close as possible to “appone.”
When Beecher began teaching about the Abenaki 10 years ago, she turned to tribal members themselves to create her foundational curricula. She’s been diligent in creating lessons that help bust stereotypes and help students accurately understand Abenaki both then and now.
“I want to be respectful in teaching this unit,” Beecher emphasized. “They were here first. This is their homeland. It’s so important to be respectful of our indigenous people.”
This fall’s study of the Abenaki started last June when last year’s class planted a three sisters garden of corn, beans and squash (including pumpkins). This year’s fourth-graders are proud that they got the garden planted. This year’s third-graders are proud that they’ve been part of weeding, harvesting and post-harvest clean up. Beecher said that in choosing which types of plants to grow she tried to find strains that were as close as possible to those grown by Vermont’s native people.
Along with growing Abenaki foods, this year’s learning has included reading stories about contemporary Abenaki and hearing Abenaki stories. An Abenaki storyteller visited the school and the children went on a field trip to Burlington’s Flynn Theater to hear an Abenaki storyteller. And judging from Beecher’s lesson plans and bountiful supply of teaching materials, there’s plenty more learning to come.
This year the students grew a strain of corn called “Earth tones dent corn.” Like all dent corn it’s hard. Rock hard. And the colorful kernels must be ground and cooked to be eaten (or poached whole into something like hominy).
The classroom is a quiet buzz of purposeful activity. In one corner, Mattie Alpaugh, a graduate student in nutrition at UVM, uses games to help kids learn about whole grains, fiber, carbohydrates and vitamins. Beans help you “grow, grow, grow,” while corn helps you “go, go, go.” At another, Beecher helps kids get started on drawing the kernels and cobs that they grew. Mounted on the wall nearby are pictures of each child, smiling while holding an ear of corn or a single pumpkin that they personally harvested.
One student points to a picture of himself clutching “the largest ear of corn.” It’s huge — almost half as big as he is.
The rock star activity of the day, of course, is grinding corn. At this learning station, some students pair up to use a large, industrial looking metal grinder. Others get to put some muscle into grinding the traditional way — with smaller stone mortars and pestles.
The kids have a blast grinding away. There are a few mishaps, with kernels flying. Adjustments are made. Above all else, they’re intent on their task. It takes some heft to pound the pestle or swing the arm of the metal grinder.
“It’s really fun pounding and having the seeds come up,” says one boy, as he puts some elbow grease into the mortar and pestle.
“It uses a lot of muscle,” reports another.
How about operating the metal grinder?
“It’s a little hard,” observe two girls, one swinging away while the other replenishes the hopper. One of the girls points to the bowl of shelled corn and explains: “It’s rainbow corn not plain yellow.”
Near to the grinders, Laura LaVacca, the district’s assistant director of nutrition, handles a huge iron skillet, frying up the thick mixture of corn, salt and water. LaVacca and Alpaugh explained that salt and butter are modern substitutions. What might the Abenaki have used to fry their appone in? One kid raises his hand and nails it: animal fat.
LaVacca and Alpaugh also brought another native treat to eat with the corn cakes. Maple syrup.
Beecher notes that this kind of hands-on approach gets children “very excited about learning, very excited to come to school. They see connections in different areas that interweave throughout the day and the year.”
Asking what interests them most about what they’ve learned about the Abenaki so far yields a trove of observations.
One girl observes that growing the corn helped the Abenaki “have food for the winter.”
Another said she was “really interested in the story that they made about the corn, the beans, and the squash.”
Still another girl recounts a legend about how people first stole fire.
One boy observes that “some winters they didn’t have enough food.”
Another says he liked learning about how “they used to take branches off the maple tree and maple syrup came out.”
Right in the midst of Vermont deer season, two boys tie their classroom learning to an important activity they share with the dads and older brothers.
“They got a lot of stuff by hunting,” one of the boys says.
Favorite activities include building the mounds to plant the corn, beans and pumpkins; ripping out the corn stalks after all the three sisters were harvested; and handling earthworms.
Toward the end of the lesson, the corn cakes are all fried up. Each kid takes a paper plate and a settler-inspired cup of cider.
“It’s a little burnt,” one boy observes, thinking carefully. The different texture and consistency has meant that even a pro like LaVacca had to try several different approaches to learn how to best cook the corn cakes.
Still chewing away, others then add: “They’re good. They taste good.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].

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