Students learn truth of Shawnees

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 17, 2005

They were some of the first inhabitants of the area we now call Ohio, but the identity of the Shawnee people has been largely forgotten by our region.

Now, one class is attempting to, in some small way, bring their culture to life for a few Ohio University Southern students.

We see their name everywhere, invoked by a college, parks, even a sanitation company, we see their language emblazoned across the region, but we see so little of their heritage. It was this injustice that spurred Dr. David Lucas to put the Native American Shawnee culture class together, even if he was only setting the record straight for 16 college students.

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"There was this nagging in my heart, that there were all these Shawnee references, but nothing about these people, not even a museum," Lucas said. "And all of these students are going to school in a place where the Shawnee thrived and lived, and they don't even know who these people are."

This is the first time that the class has been offered at OUS, so it's new ground for both educator and students. The class will study Shawnee rituals, religion, history and even cuisine.

The capstone of the experience will take place in May, when the students will travel to Oklahoma to see some of the remaining Shawnee people first-hand. The trip will carry a $350 price tag, which will come out of the students' own pockets.

Once in Oklahoma, the students will spend their time meeting with Shawnee elders, observing their modern culture and comparing it to the ancient ways that the class will have studied.

Lucas has employed these sorts of trips in various classes throughout the years, and he's found it to be an invaluable teaching tool.

"Any time you get this element of taking the student out of the classroom they are energized," Lucas said. "I can't even explain why it works, I just know it works. I still remember the magician coming to my elementary school. Now why do I remember that? Because whatever it was I was doing was different than what I had done previously."

The students gathered in Lucas' classroom seem to be looking forward to the journey as much as he is. Senior Erica Melvin was giddy with anticipation for the trip, which she believes will be her most valuable lesson in Shawnee culture.

"It's an easier way to learn, because you can read from a book all you want, but you're really not going to learn anything," Melvin said. "You learn more when you experience it for yourself."

What they will experience is quite different than the feathers and leather-clad people that they may be expecting,

Lucas said. He said that instead, they would bear witness to a people who are still proud, but marginalized.

It's a sad tale that Lucas will relate, and its one in which the United States is often cast as the villain. Rather than dealing with cultural guilt however, Lucas hopes to imbue his students with the sense that a new day could be dawning.

"If you approach it like that, they get the sense that they can make a difference," Lucas said. "I always tell students, 'Look, this is the way it happened, it's awful, and a tragedy but today it changes, here, with you.'"