Willow School students recently took a trip back 500 years to learn how Native Americans lived, courtesy of historian Louis P. Aiello.
Second graders at Willow School in Homewood learned 40 million buffalo roamed America at one time, and Native Americans used the buffalo’s horn as a ladle.
They learned the turtle was sacred to Native Americans, and the turtle’s shell was used as a serving bowl.
They didn’t have shoes and socks, but animal fur in the moccasins warmed their feet.
Wild ginger root was used to cure stomachaches, and a mortar made from a hollowed out tree and pestle crafted from a branch allowed women to mash acorns and other nuts into flour for bread.
The term “fine tooth comb” comes from creating a comb from the white tail deer’s lower jawbone.
“Everything they needed they made from nature. Nothing was wasted,” explained Louis P. Aiello, a Native American historian, who gave a 90-minute presentation to the children on Monday, Nov 13.
He walked them back 500 years to the cultures and daily life of the tribes before Europeans came to America. The Illinois, Sauk, Miami, Huron, Ojibwe and other tribes had their own languages and culture. They used what nature provided; they had no metal or working wheels. Dogs were the one domesticated animal and could be trained to carry a travois, a drag sled, laden with belongings.
Aiello got students to volunteer for his demonstrations. One volunteered to be the dog tied to the travois, another wore a Native American “backpack” and others got to wear animal skin clothes.
When he showed them how to make rope from the cattail plant leave, one student told him, “That’s so cool!”
Men hunted, but women did 80 percent of the work. They were considered equal partners and given voting rights. In many cases they were better trained then the men, Aiello explained. It was the women who built the long houses or wigwams, skinned the animals, prepared the food, made the clothes, harvested and learned what roots and plants were needed as cures.
Second grader Clara Starkenburg thought it would be OK to live in those early days “because you can make all these things, and because there’s a lot of jobs for ladies” but Justin Abercrombie wasn’t so sure after Aiello told students the forests were filled with black bears, mountain lions, coyote, elk and wolves.
“It kinda sounds OK,” he said, “but I wouldn’t want to hunt because I’d be afraid of bears and coyotes.”
Aiello, of Minooka, said he became fascinated with the Native American history and culture when he worked for the Will County Forest Preserve District at Isle a la Cache Museum in Romeoville. Over time it became his passion, so 25 years ago he started giving lectures about Native Americans.
“It’s a fascinating culture and it’s often misrepresented,” he said. “I try to bring it to life, rather than stereotypical form. It’s hard because a lot of people are engrained with what they see in the movies.”
He started collecting a few items. Today he has hundreds of pieces that have been recreated to be as authentic as possible. If he can’t find the materials he needs in the woods, he goes to Native American trade fairs and picks up skins and other natural items.
Aiello also has befriended a Native American woman who has taught him about natural medicines.