Planting Cultural Seeds At Ross

Shinnecock native Matauqus Tarrant leads Ross School students in a dance during the Shinnecock Green Corn Festival that was held on the grounds of the Ross Lower School on Wednesday, 6/17/15
Shinnecock native Matauqus Tarrant leads Ross School students in a dance during the Shinnecock Green Corn Festival last Wednesday. Photo by Michael Heller.

By Mara Certic

For the past several months, fourth graders at the Ross School have been learning about Native American history and culture from their Shinnecock neighbors. Last week, they celebrated the culmination of their studies with a Green Corn Festival on the grounds of the campus on Butter Lane in Bridgehampton.

Students and families of the Ross Lower School gathered last week to take part in a celebration of learning, growing and Native American culture. Members of the Shinnecock Nation came to perform, tell stories, and explain more about their history and way of life.

Andrina Smith, a 2003 graduate of the Ross School and member of the Shinnecock Nation, remembers the impact that her school had on her, and wanted to promote the Shinnecock Reservation in the Ross community when she first reached out to fourth-grade teacher Alicia Schorbine about creating a new program for teaching students about Native Americans.

“One of the wonderful things about the Ross curriculum is that there are threads which enable so many parts of cultures to be explored,” Ms. Smith said over the phone this week.

“The fourth grade focuses on Native America,” Ms. Smith explained, “And we thought why not connect the Native Americans they’re learning about with the ones who live down the road?” she said.

After speaking with other members of the tribe, Ms. Smith got together with Ms. Schorbine and the two decided to collaborate on an indigenous plant program to teach the 9-and-10-year-olds.

Students and teachers did research on indigenous plants, and the adults looked into which plants have beneficial properties. “We wanted to give them an experience that focuses on Native American healing and sustainability within the garden,” Ms. Smith said.

“But this year’s focus was more on getting plants in the ground,” she added. The indigenous plant project is ongoing, and will continue in fourth grade classrooms at Ross for years to come, she hopes.

In fact, the school has plans to incorporate it not just into its fourth grade curriculum, but also to incorporate the new indigenous plant program into the Summer Camp @ Ross. Next year, the curriculum will evolve to use the plants to make healing teas and balms, Ms. Smith said. “In this world of over-medicating and pharmaceuticals, the concept of using nature to heal yourself has been lost in general culture,” she said.

“We also want to instill in them this notion of native: The native peoples using these native plants,” she said. “It ties into the larger scene of local living. It’s such an important lesson that this generation of children are going to need to have,” she said, adding that embracing what is local is the only way the earth will be able to heal itself.

Ms. Smith said that in the past few years, she has been able to spend time with an aunt with Montaukett blood who lives in Rhode Island and was trained by a medicine woman.

“I pretty much go up there to work on my traditional education,” Ms. Smith said, reiterating that she too is in the very beginning stages of learning how to create different healing blends.

“There’s a lot of talk of cultural appropriation and having respect for culture, but not always for the people who make up the culture,” she said. For that reason, there are some Shinnecock secrets that are sacred and that the nation is hesitant to indulge with Ross students.

“It’s a very fine line to walk. You always want to bring truth and honor to projects, and truth and honor to the endeavor of working with students,” Ms. Smith said. “But you also need to bring truth and honor to your ancestors and the ancestral land,” she added.

“I’ve made it my personal job to find ways to positively incorporate the Shinnecock nation into the East End. Similar to the Ross School, I feel like there is an image of Shinnecock, and an image of Ross, that’s purported but doesn’t always reflect the true integrity of the school or of the tribe,” she said.

Ms. Smith said she feels the burden of being a minority in a predominately wealthy area, while many members of the African American community can no longer afford to live here and are being pushed out. “The Shinnecock Nation is not going anywhere, this is our tribal land,” she explained.

“So since we’re not leaving and the rich people of the Hamptons aren’t leaving, and with Southampton celebrating its 375 birthday, now’s a great time to just mend those bridges and strengthen the connection between the people who have always lived here and the people who live here now,” she said.

“And especially in the climate of our country right now, it’s really important that we find ways to unify.”