How the powwow saved the day

13th March 2009 at 00:00
Animal spirit masks, teepees and a few traditional dance moves had East Lothian pupils fighting off the fiery Thunderbird

The thunder rolls as the Thunderbird approaches. Inside their teepees crouch the wolves, the buffaloes, the bears and the eagles, brave young Native Americans who have come to powwow with the Thunderbird who every year takes one of them captive in return for bringing rain.

Did anyone see the Thunderbird?

"Yes. He had fire round his face," says one young brave.

"He had two heads, heads like clouds with lightning in them," says another.

Some 45 East Lothian P4 pupils, complete with their own animal spirit masks, are negotiating with Thunderbird. They want the rain he brings but are no longer willing to give up one of their number - "because we are all one family", says one. They offer him clean water and fresh buffalo, one pupil declaring: "You are sad because you have no family and you want ours."

The pupils' lines are not scripted and are quite spontaneous. This is the culmination of a five-week arts project where the pupils have been "in role" rather than "acting".

"The pupils take on the cultural views and attitudes of the Native Americans they have been exploring and put themselves in their shoes," says East Lothian drama teacher Shonagh Davidson. "It's about using the process to allow them to engage with the feelings of who they are in the drama, to explore the world in a safe way, which allows them to challenge and question, to negotiate and problem solve," she says.

The powwow project began as a simple drama lesson, based on Native American creation myths, but so rich was the material that Ms Davidson and fellow drama teacher Marjory Sweeney were able to bring in colleagues from music, art and dance in the East Lothian arts service team.

"Native American culture is so rich in symbol and expression that it seemed to demand a collaborative approach," says Ms Davidson.

The result was eight P4 classes from across the authority becoming involved in developing the story, making teepees and masks and learning authentic dance movements, culminating in the finale. "Giving them a basic knowledge of Native American dance involved them learning how the movements of their chosen spirit animals - bears, wolves, buffaloes and eagles - are traditionally represented," says dance artist Beth Noble.

"Throughout, and in keeping with the piece, they have been calm and controlled. In fact, from the moment they donned their masks, they got a sense of ownership and responsibility - a sense of identity. That's when it took off."

The sense of ownership is apparent, the concentration obvious. The pupils lead the dance themselves. The youngsters are clearly focused. They are "in the moment".

"The project has been fantastic," says Fiona Edwards, Yester Primary class teacher. "It has brought on their confidence. Even ones who didn't normally speak out, do now. They got involved - and excited."

The project has inspired Mrs Edwards to try something similar with her own P4 class, using a Border Ballad as a springboard for an arts project to help celebrate The Homecoming later this year.

Shirley Lawson, P4 class teacher at East Linton Primary, has been similarly inspired. "It has been great to see the pupils working independently, as well as taking on roles as team leaders in the dance and working collaboratively, making the teepees and working together with other schools," she says.

"I have tied the project into writing and to storytelling and now, learning from what I've seen, I hope to be able to use drama in PSD."

The enthusiasm and the enjoyment of the children clearly show through in their imaginative responses as they run, row, swim and fire off their bows and arrows on their great journey across the plains to the mountains where Thunderbird awaits. "I have climbed nine mountains and I saw the plains," says one traveller.

"I climbed a volcano," says another. "But I didn't know it was a volcano till I got to the top."

When Thunderbird roars that that is the one he wants, a voice pipes up: "I want doesn't get!"

Even Thunderbird could not argue with that.

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