Fort Worth students connect with American Indian heritage

FORT WORTH -- Lluvia Carmona, 10, straightens out the bright yellow strands on her purple shawl.

She unfolds her shawl to display the flag of her Tohono O'Odham people. The tribe's name translates as "Desert People," and the banner bears 11 feathers that represent the districts of the Arizona nation. She takes extra care not to let it dip while smoothing out the wrinkles.

"You're not to put your regalia on the floor, not even the shawl," said the incoming fifth-grader as she joined the procession of students onto the powwow floor.

About a dozen students danced around the drum, showing off the different styles of American Indian dance -- cloth, grass, gourd and others. They were part of a two-week annual summer camp that the Fort Worth school district offers as part of its American Indian program.

This is the 20th year for the camp, which teaches students about American Indian history, traditions and culture through games, lessons, dance, crafts and other activities. For example, students learn about archery and practice shooting at targets 10 yards away.

Jewelissa Valenzuela, an 8-year-old member of the Creek and Yuchi nations, is attending the camp for her third year and brags about her aim.

"I hit the deer in its stomach and antlers," she said of the target drawings. "It's fun and sometimes hard."

Cultural awareness

Alice Barrientez, the district's liaison for the American Indian program, said it teaches students about their heritage and respect for the land. She said many in the later generations know little about their traditions because they are so removed from others in their tribes.

"Sometimes they don't even know what tribe they belong to, but they just know they are Indian because their grandma said something," Barrientez said.

Before the camp begins, she asks families which nations are represented. Students must then do research to learn one story about their tribe and five words in their native language. This year's camp includes 32 students in first to 12th grades from American Indian nations from across the U.S.

Barrientez travels to schools to give presentations on American Indian culture, which has dramatically increased the number of students enrolled in the program. When she started about two years ago, she said the district had 132 students identified as American Indian. Now 363 are identified.

Mother Earth

Barrientez helps families get resources or information for matters such as health issues or school supplies, and she works with parents to get them involved with the students as well. Other efforts include an annual powwow sponsored by the district and an art project in which students make their own paint and create art from the land.

The small indoor powwow this week included lessons in etiquette, attire and symbolism.

Derek Frick, a college student, went through the camp when he attended Arlington Heights High School. He told those at the camp that the eagle feather is the most powerful medicine among American Indian nations and represents strength. He said such feathers must be earned through respect, good behavior and showmanship at powwows.

Four young men led the procession carrying the drum to the center of the classroom to begin the ceremony.

"The drum is the heartbeat of our nation," Barrientez said. "It represents Mother Earth. Her heart beats just like ours."

EVA-MARIE AYALA, 817-390-7700