Students learn about native ways
Arizona Daily Star
March 20, 2008


Andrea Rivera

Tucson, Arizona | Published:

After weeks spent in classrooms studying Indian tribes, Harelson Elementary School fourth-graders retreated from their classrooms to walk where the Hohokam tribe lived some 1,500 years ago.

Harelson's visit to Catalina State Park once home to the Hohokam tribe wrapped up a six-week lesson by all three of the fourth-grade classes at the school, 826 W. Chapala Drive.

Their visit to the park included a pit fire where the students' Pueblo-inspired coil pots were fired.

The pit fire has been a tradition for fourth-graders dating back 10 years. This is about the sixth year the pit fire has burned at Catalina State Park. In the past, the event was held at Harelson.

"They remember this," Harelson art teacher Liz Caris said. "It's a little different than a play.

"The Native American culture is precious, and we live so close to so many tribes in Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado. We have the luxury of seeing these people live now like they lived 1,000 years ago."

Part of the curriculum during the six-week lesson included art history, and students learned about the life of potter Maria Martinez of the San Ildefonso Pueblo tribe near Santa Fe.

Martinez, who died in 1980, and her husband invented a pottery technique that produced matte finishes and glossy jet-black pottery a result of the firing process.

Harelson's pit fire is as close as possible to the firing process Martinez used to create her world-famous style of pottery.

Caris has taught the technique to students for 10 years.

"It is just as important my kids learn about culture as they learn about art history," she said.

"This is start to finish exactly what these people do. I want them to understand that it might not always be this way. Their great-grandkids may not have the luxury of seeing this."

To produce the pottery, which is black or red depending on the variations in the creation process, Caris and some parent volunteers stacked the pots on a grate and piled dried cow manure and wood on the outside. Once the fire started to rage, horse manure was added to keep air out.

In addition to having their pottery fired, the 75 or so fourth-graders hiked Romero Ruin Trail, made Lakota-inspired medicine bags, built talking sticks, sat in a sweat lodge, created paper versions of Hopi pots and had traditional Indian food. They munched on a fry-bread-type pastry with honey and sugar, along with tortillas.

Before the students explored the park, a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation, Stone Roybal, delivered a blessing in Lakota to honor the energy of the land.

Roybal also had a blessing for the students.

"Bless their feet, the steps they take," he said.

During the guided hike, students moved about on the same land inhabited by the Hohokam people more than 1,500 years ago. That land included a recreation area.

"I learned that they dug out a pit for a ball court," 9-year-old Nathan Firor said.

Nathan and his peers knew a great deal about the Indian culture even before they visited the state park.

"The most interesting thing I learned (in class) is that when a person dies they punch a hole in their pottery to release their spirit," Nathan said.

Hailey Palma, 10, said the Indian culture is exceptional.

"They do special things for the gods and they are very different and kind of unique," she said.

● Contact reporter Andrea Rivera at 806-7737 or