There’s a beautiful new tradition in the making at Ross Lower School. Earlier this week, fourth graders “broke ground” to create a Native American garden in the field outside the Green Building. Members of the Shinnecock Nation, including Ross students Chelsea and Kendall Coard, as well as alumni Andrina Smith and Cholena Smith, and Cholena's father Gerrod, performed a traditional Native American ceremony to bless the Earth and give thanks for the coming harvest.
After a blessing from Gerrod, the Shinnecock each held a handful of ceremonial tobacco up to the sky, giving thanks as they turned to face the four corners of the Earth before sprinkling the tobacco in the new garden. Cholena then led the students in a traditional dance and song of thanks as they made their way in a circle around the garden.
Andrina also took the opportunity to express thanks for the special relationship between the School and the Shinnecock Nation. To celebrate this collaboration, a Green Corn Festival will be held at the Lower School on June 17. The event, open to all in the community, will feature Native American dancers and drummers, traditional games, beading, food, and storytelling.
As the students mingled around the garden, they explained that they first planted the “three sisters” (corn, beans, and squash), and plan to add indigenous healing herbs and culinary plants. “This garden represents the symbiotic relationship Native American peoples have with the Earth, and will eventually lead to a garden exchange program between the School and the Shinnecock Museum,” fourth grade teacher Alicia Schordine said.
The garden holds important meaning to the fourth graders. This past year, they studied pre-Columbian Native American history, discussing local indigenous tribes, specifically Shinnecock, and the Iroquois confederacy. They learned about communities, rituals, shelters, and customs, as well as sustainability in Native American culture.
Leading up to the planting and blessing, Gerrod and Cholena visited with the students to share their own stories of the Shinnecock Indians, including rites of passage, ceremonial dances, and the evolution of crops for food and medicine. Gerrod discussed the spiritual connection the tribes maintain with nature and the circle of life, noting the respect the tribes showed to the animals they hunted as sources of food and shelter.
Clearly a gifted historian and storyteller, Gerrod asked the students to think about their ancestors sitting around a campsite. With no stores, schools, or electricity, everything had to be made from natural resources gathered in the wild. They gave offerings, such as tobacco, for plants and animals as a sign of their reverence so the harvest and wildlife would continue to return to them.
“Eventually we saved seeds, and the three sisters were the first types of crops to be cultivated,” he said. From them, different habits and plants emerged. “That’s where you all are at with your new garden. You’re helping to tell the story of life and rebirth.”
He also discussed medicinal plants such as wintergreen, which is used to ease toothaches, and certain tree bark that is boiled to make a tea to soothe a sore throat.
Cholena talked about life on the reservation and particular dances that she herself performs for ceremonies and festivals. For example, this month, the Shinnecock will celebrate the strawberry harvest with a day of dancing and sharing of foods such as strawberry pie and pastries. “There are so many things that happen because of this little piece of red fruit,” she said with a smile.
“We’ve all enjoyed the recent events that have strengthened our ties to the Shinnecock Nation,” Alicia said, “and we’re looking forward to celebrating at Ross School’s first annual Green Corn Festival next week!”