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History buff takes second graders 500 years back for glimpse of Native American way of life

Willow School students recently took a trip back 500 years to learn how Native Americans lived, courtesy of historian Louis P. Aiello.

  Dress-up time in Native American elk skin clothing for
  Willow School students, from left, Trey Bernal, Kylan
  Hook and Clara Starkenburg.

 

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.
 

  Justin Abercrombie, a
  second grader at Willow
  School, beats a drum
  made from a hollowed
  tree covered in buffalo
  skin.
(Photos by Marilyn 
  Thomas/H-F Chronicle)
 

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. 
 
  Presenter Louis P. Aiello
  makes music with Jeremiah
  Smith-Marshall. Aiello
  brought Native American
  objects to teach Willow
  School second graders
  about the peoples who
  lived in the Midwest
  500 years ago.

 

“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!”  
 
  Mariah Winn listens
  as Louis Aiello explains
  the Native American
  equivalent of today’s
  backpack. Rather than
  straps across the
  shoulders, the pack
  was supported from
  the head.

 

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.

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