By: James Lewicki
This is the second of a two-part preface excerpt from the book To Know the Joy of Work Well Done: Building Connections and Community with Place-Based Learning.
When Walter writes simply of his experience in Hiroshima –I am reminded how PLACE resonates for all. I am reminded how the power of place is a universal principle with a very local reality; all places have stories; all places have histories. And each story is unique to its own place. For Hiroshima, the arc of its history, from its founding in 1598, was traumatized with a tragedy of epic proportions on August 6th, 1945. This event was so “place-critical” that the words from Cardinal Carsoli, “What do you do for Peace?” were akin to a greeting, echoing the power of Hiroshima.
It’s like standing with others at Wounded Knee and asking a stranger, “What do you do for Justice?” Asking this with one’s feet upon the ground at Wounded Knee both honors the place and is real for the person asked. For most places the story of the past is less dramatic than Hiroshima, yet always meaningful to those who inhabit these places. The stories of home can be profound. This came home to me when I had the opportunity to study the Kickapoo Valley with 15 amazing students for an entire year. Together in our little school bus we came to know our place engaging over 100 days in the community; field trips became field studies.
One morning, in mid-fall, a seemingly innocent question during a silent reading time led us down a path of immense undertaking. It was a classic example of ‘generative emergence’ that so often occurs in place-based inquiry, almost always from a student’s contribution. A student was reading a history of Black Hawk, the Sauk chief who defied U.S. treaties, when she looked up at me, a question having been triggered, and asked, “Did the Kickapoo Indians ever really live in the Kickapoo Valley?” Her classmates on the eclectic chairs and singular couch in our living room unhooked their literary eyes from their books. I paused, and replied, “I really don’t know.” The ensuing discussion led us down an inquiry path. What did we really know about the Kickapoo Indians? No one had ever read of the Kickapoo Indians actually living in the Kickapoo Valley. Nor did we know why the valley was named Kickapoo. With this historical gap in mind, we discussed ways to bridge it. We knew archival research would be critical. How to find a historical document placing the Kickapoo Indians in the Kickapoo River watershed?
Next week, off we went in our little bus to read the original US & Kickapoo Nation treaties at the historical archives located at the University of Wisconsin – Platteville.
We read all seven original treaties. Clearly, in all the treaties, the land ceded by the Kickapoo was in Illinois, not Wisconsin. The treaties described territory bordered by the Wabash and Vermillion Rivers of Illinois, not the Kickapoo River in Wisconsin. Our query remained unanswered. A few weeks later in Madison, at the State Historical Archives room, we were reviewing scores of notes, letters, and transcripts of meetings between chiefs recorded by a U.S. Indian Agent from 1790 to 1810 at Prairie du Chien, along the Mississippi River.
Prairie du Chien is a few miles downriver from the Kickapoo River confluence with the Wisconsin River, which empties into the Mississippi River at Prairie du Chien. While we sorted through these artifacts, you could have heard a pin drop in the stately marble-pillared reading room. Suddenly a student shrieked to fill the hall. Backs straightened. Heads of historians working at their own archive-filled tables quickly turned. “I found it!” Jenny gasped. We gathered around her table. Eyes looked upon a tattered yellow parchment, an original record of a speech by a Kickapoo Chief given in Prairie du Chien in 1807, a mere twenty miles from the Kickapoo River. Jenny had found the first historical document to place a Kickapoo Indian, let alone a Kickapoo chief, within a day’s horse ride from the Kickapoo River! This didn’t fully answer our questions, but it certainly whetted our appetites. The other question pressing the student’s inquiry buttons was how did the valley receive the name Kickapoo? We now understood that it had not been the Kickapoo Nations tribal land, so why name it Kickapoo? And who?
A few weeks later, on a separate research trip back to the archives, looking into the history of Haney Creek, a tributary of the Kickapoo River, a student was reading the private letters of John Haney from 1842, one of the first white men to enter the pristine valley soon to be named Kickapoo. In one letter to his father, he mentioned two Native American families living along the banks of the river below his cabin. Could these have been Kickapoo Indians? This historical association led the students to hypothesize that John Haney, one of the first settlers in the Kickapoo Valley, who had a creek, township, and school named after him, may have originated the name Kickapoo for the river which ran 100 miles from its source near Tomah, Wisconsin, past his log cabin at Haney Creek, to its confluence with the Wisconsin River. The students knew that John Haney was knowledgeable about Native Americans because they also found that day in the archives a hand-made Ho-Chunk Dictionary that Haney had created for the Ho-Chunk Nation just north of the Kickapoo Watershed. He would have known the tribal affiliation of these two families. It certainly refined our line of questioning. Was John Haney, an early settler, the person who named the Kickapoo Valley?
What a chain of research events unfolded that fall. Place based inquiry, like a compass bearing, led us forward to discover the story of our place we shared – students and teachers alike– the Kickapoo Valley. Hiroshima and Kickapoo contain universal place based principles. A key principle being that students OWN the WHY.My students were looking into origin stories; Walter’s students were looking for ways to contribute to the community through Peace interactions. Importantly, the students owned the whys.
- Why am I doing this?
- Why is it important?
- Why will it matter for my place?
Key threads self-organize the work. For my students, the thread was discovery. For Walter’s students, the thread was contribution. The activation of each student’s ability, whether through discovery or contribution, was the fuel that drove this place-based work. When a “student’s capacity is turned into ability” – to echo Jerome Bruner – then the vibrancy of learning is so strong that the air seems to radiate. I’ll leave it to a place-based student, Nicole, from her unique Colorado community, to express this idea, “I learned more about myself, my peers, and my community than I could possible imagine. It is incredible to be with so many people with a strong passion working together to make their dreams happen. I learned to trust and respect people for the good that they had. It is an incredible feeling to work with people and make a successful product. I did things that I didn’t think I could.”
“For me, the most important place on the farm was the cattail marsh at its north end. To get there, you took the farm’s interior road, a grass track that ran east to the edge of the maple grove and then north as far as the waterway that drained into the slough from the east. The physical distance was not quite half a mile, but so far as I was concerned it might have been halfway around the world.” Paul Gruchow (Grass Roots: The Universe of Home)
James Lewicki is the Director of Development at EdVisions.