I kept giggling like I had never giggled before. My Fourth Grade Teacher Mrs. Martin’s kind face leaned down in front of me and said, “I’m glad you’re enjoying your classwork, Frank.”
One Friday she had asked us to bring a piece of cardboard measuring two feet by two feet, and if we needed help, to ask our parents. They could probably retrieve packing boxes for us behind the Safeway grocery store two blocks away.
She gave us an assortment of beans, pintos, lima, kidneys, reds. My classmates and I glued them to the piece of cardboard to identify where different Native American tribes lived in Nebraska. Of course, we’re referring to the time before they were ordered to reservations across the Midwest, one of the more tragic chapters of Manifest Destiny. Using beans for the lesson did little to demystify the Great Plains tribes that included the Otoe, Kansa, Omaha, Ponca, Pawnee, Lakota Sioux, Yankton/Dakota Sioux, Arapaho, and Cheyenne, or to explain their violent and peaceful lifestyles.
The project allowed us to use our hands. Plus, Elmer’s Glue was one of my favorite smells. After it dried on my fingers, I could peel it away like I was pretending to be a detective collecting prints. I thought of the legendary Big Foot, and the casts made by the forerunners to myth busters – guys with too much time on their hands, wanting their 15 minutes of fame on local TV long before the Discovery and History channels came into being, in contrast to encyclopedias describing the plight of French trappers, gold miners and sod busters. Mrs. Martin also explained how our state derived its name from the Otoe words Ni Braske, which meant flat water, referring to the Platte River. She said little about surveyors Lewis and Clark, and more about their prominent guide Sacajawea.
Mrs. Martin stood five-foot-nothing and wore her auburn hair in an old-fashioned bun. She wore simple, plain dresses because that’s what ladies did back in the mid-1970s. They were described as appropriate, polite and conservative as opposed to male and minority. How is this relevant? Well, only because I never did have a Native American teacher in the entirety of my studies all the way to earning my Masters in Education. Of course, DNA testing aside.
My beans filled up the outlines for each tribe and eventually resulted in the shape of Nebraska. She called me “ornery” for not being quiet while she tried to explain the early history of our state. Later, she admitted that was a lie, that she only wanted to get my attention. Instead, she appreciated my affectionate joy at being committed to working hard on a history project using art.
As we finished our projects, we proudly posted them on the walls around the room. Mrs. Martin awarded gold stars for completing our projects before the final bell, and extra stars for neatness. I stuffed everything under the wooden lid of my desk. She answered our pestering questions about headdresses, appaloosas and war paint to the best of her ability. We tossed the extra beans at our friends across the room while Mrs. Martin kindly ignored our antics as Friday afternoon wore on. We could sense our weekend minutes away, and Saturday morning cartoons the next day.
Ironically, being such a big part of early Nebraska history, we didn’t know much about Native Americans, and our further education in junior high and high school didn’t add much to the topic. Instead, we belted out songs about This Land Is your Land, This Land is My Land and America the Beautiful, omitting the inviting rhythms and heartfelt cries from Indian drum circles.
I giggled because Mrs. Martin made the classroom fun. She put her hand gently on my shoulders when I got out of control, a rare occasion for a normally shy boy, instead of embarrassing me in front of friends. She let me be me. Though, I can’t speak for others, I’m sure they smiled for some of the same reasons.
The school texts did not compare to the tales I discovered later in life, the diary accounts of people who lived and died on the land before others decided to rewrite history, stories focused on triumph rather than defeat. Those questions wouldn’t have entered my head if it wasn’t for Mrs. Martin, who decided to teach us something about Native Americans that sent me to the Gering Public Library to find names like Red Cloud, Standing Bear, Crazy Horse and Spotted Elk.
I attended the Pow Wows during Oregon Trail Days in July, the ones that featured my cousin Robert ‘Bobby’ Bickerstaff Jr. in full dress, keeping the traditions of his Sioux ancestors. We are the same age, yet worlds apart. My Uncle Bob married my Aunt Julie. A lady of Mexican descent who conveyed little of her attraction to him. I knew next to nothing about him or my cousin, except that they ended up moving to Omaha before I could really get to know them. Getting along with my aunt was a cultural bridge too far. My uncle took what he knew to his grave; he passed away a few years ago. Mrs. Martin’s lesson gave me a reason to ask questions about my own family though it is research yet undone.
As the school day ended, compacted in the shorter hours of late fall, the smell of Lysol associated with the shiny wooden floors of each classroom and the blue and white-tiled floors of the hallways at Lincoln Elementary gave way to the outdoor scents of the falling golden leaves and freshly cut grass.
Our displays of beans in the shape of our beloved state caused me to daydream about the days of yore – the gritty reality that Hollywood saw fit to overlook in ‘The Lone Ranger.’ That early morning drama broadcast on one of three TV channels depicted one Native American, Tonto, as the verbally challenged companion of the hero, a white man wearing none other than a black mask and a white cowboy hat. I wondered what bean I might have used to represent the fictional character Tonto and his purported either Potawatomi or Comanche tribe. For the record, ‘tonto’ in Spanish means dumb, stupid, or silly.
By spring we carried our projects home, leaving a trail of beans 10 blocks long. I’ll always remember the year of living history in her class. Mrs. Martin taught in a three-dimensional way, long before studies proved her methods right, that kids learn in different ways. Before the final bell rang on Friday and she dismissed us, she passed around two colorful arrowheads and small pieces of flint. By her account, Indian artifacts. Her husband found the remnants on their farm, artifacts that have since started a fire in more ways than one.
Finally, the bell rang, and walking down the hall, I recall how I considered Mrs. Martin my favorite teacher. Giggling today, tickled by her memory, the beans not withstanding, she fed my desire to learn.
Image: Chief Red Cloud (Native American name Mahpiua Luta) was born 1822, on the Platte River, Nebraska Territory, U.S. He died Dec. 10, 1909, Pine Ridge Agency, S.D. He was principal chief of the Oglala Teton Dakota (Sioux), who successfully resisted (1865–67) the U.S. government’s development of the Bozeman Trail to newly discovered goldfields in Montana Territory.