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Native American Shares History, Culture With APW Fourth Graders

Students across New York State study Native American history and culture during the fourth grade.

In Central New York, the study revolves around the Iroquois Nation.

Patricia Pierce-DeGraw holds a feathered headdress worn by her father, Clinton Pierce, a member of the Onondaga Nation. He was given the headdress at the age of 11 and wore it during Native American ceremonies.
Patricia Pierce-DeGraw holds a feathered headdress worn by her father, Clinton Pierce, a member of the Onondaga Nation. He was given the headdress at the age of 11 and wore it during Native American ceremonies.

Students at Altmar-Parish-Williamstown Elementary School welcomed a guest speaker recently who shared her own personal history and Native American culture through her ancestry in the Onondaga Nation.

Patricia Pierce-DeGraw, a resident and substitute teacher in the district brought in many items for the fourth graders to see and learn about. Pierce-DeGraw’s father, Clinton, was a member of the Onondaga Nation, and she shared with the students many of the artifacts and items he grew up with and used in traditional dances and ceremonies.

The Onondaga Nation, sometimes referred to as the Iroquois Confederacy or Six Nations, is today a 7,300-acre sovereign nation territory just south of Syracuse.

Pierce-DeGraw’s father grew up on the reservation, and many of his relatives still live there.

His Onondagan name was Hudda, which translated to mean “little radishes.” Pierce-DeGraw said he was given the name because he was always slim and skinny.

Her father left the reservation when he joined the Army and she was raised in New Jersey where he formed a Native American dance troupe that toured around the state performing many of the “public” ceremonies from the Onondaga tribe.

Pierce-DeGraw shared with the students much of what she had learned growing up about the Native American culture, but acknowledged that because her father did not marry an Onondaga tribe member, many of the traditions and culture were not open to her and her siblings.

Rebecca Engler examines the string on a Native American necklace brought in by Patricia Pierce-DeGraw that was made from an animal skin or sinew.
Rebecca Engler examines the string on a Native American necklace brought in by Patricia Pierce-DeGraw that was made from an animal skin or sinew.

“The Nation is very protective of their cultural secrets,” she said.

Most of what she learned came from stories her father and his family shared while she was growing up, and she has been careful to pass these on to her children to keep the knowledge of the culture alive.

In the Onondaga Nation, teaching is passed down from the mother’s side of the family and since her mother was not Native American, she was not given the opportunity to learn many of the traditions and secrets reserved for tribe members.

She shared several stories about creation and the reverence and appreciation for nature that she learned from her father with the students and told others that she has learned through her own study of the Native American beliefs and traditions.

She also brought many items for the students to see and passed several around for the students to examine more closely.