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In Banjul, Revisiting the 18th Century American Northwest

By Vanessa Sanyang
In Banjul, Revisiting the 18th Century American Northwest

Taking their role as 18th-century Native Americans seriously, BAES second and third graders are rightly skeptical of European settler Jeremiah Smith (played by Director Ray Lemoine, foreground)(photo: BAES/V. Sanyang).
What does it take to get transported back in time?
• A social studies Storypath lesson that involves problem-solving
• A director who can act (Dr. Raymond Lemoine)
• The imagination of seven- and eight-year-olds
An amazing thing happened in my Grade 2/3 classroom at Banjul American Embassy School (in The Gambia, West Africa). For about 30 minutes, my students seemed to be transported back in time to the 1700s along the Northwest Coast of North America.
Starting our journey about three weeks prior, we gathered information about the environment and people of the Northwest Coast, a land where the mist creates mystery.
We created a wall frieze and wrote poems about its beauty. We learned that the early tribes had unusual names such as Nootka. Despite the rugged landscape, the land was plentiful and the people found the time to be artistic, carving beautiful bowls and majestic totem poles. We created our own poles, with symmetrical designs and animal symbols.
We discovered that these early tribes had a structured civilization, where each village member had important roles to play. Students created their own identities and participated in a speech activity in which they introduced themselves to the other family, explaining what skills they could offer the village.
Learning that the village chiefs ruled not by decree but by consulting the people in order to reach a consensus, a decision was made by both families to elect two chiefs, Alex and Arthur.
We conducted the “First Salmon” ceremony, building a fire and cooking the first (paper) salmon of the season, sharing with each family member. Our chiefs took the bones and threw them in the river, bringing good luck to our village.
Just when everything was going so well… in walked a European stranger, Jeremiah Smith (Dr. Lemoine). And then the trouble began!
He started making demands to see our chief, and was quite surprised to find two. He informed them that his people were going to take our forest in order to cut and sell the lumber. He warned that our villagers must stay away.
When Alex told him that he would need to consult his people, Mr. Smith expressed disgust. Nevertheless, he agreed to wait a while and left the room. Alex and Arthur then led a discussion with all villagers about what to do! A decision was made to allow this tall stranger to take some seeds so that he could grow his own trees.
After listening to our offer of seeds, he threw them back in our face! He said they wanted the lumber now. Our chiefs were shocked that he was not willing to negotiate and they returned to our group. One chief was overheard muttering “Gah! He’s so ANNOYING!”
This last group session was when imagination took over and it became the 1700’s. The group shared ideas of how to save our forest. Desperation filled the air. The question of whether we should go to war was asked, but Alex wisely said war is not the answer. Many felt that gifts might help and it was decided to work around the clock, in shifts, to create as many bowls and berry pies as possible.
When Jeremiah Smith returned for the last time, our chiefs tried their best to engage him in a fair discussion, but he was adamant. The forest would be cut. We were devastated.
And then Dr. Lemoine became himself again, explaining how this acting role was difficult for him too because he could see their frustration. We took a look at an actual treaty that affected the Northwest Coast people. Alex, still feeling angry, drew a large “X” across the entire page. I explained that many chiefs wanted to do that as well, but were forced to make deals with the settlers in order to somehow help their people.
During the entire role playing session, it was great to see that my students did not seek my help, despite their frustration. They relied on their own initiative and learned to be brave and face the settler as a group. The outcome was not a good one… as it also proved to be for the Northwest Coast people so long ago.
It was a hard lesson—but one I think my students may well remember.
This article was previously published in BAES Buzz, a monthly newsletter for the Banjul American Embassy School. Founded in 1984, BAES is an independent school offering an educational program from preschool through high school for English-speaking students of all nationalities.

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