A single eagle feather helped Wisconsin’s newly declared Indigenous People’s Day take flight Monday at Putnam Heights Elementary in Eau Claire.
That feather, carefully carried to school and shared with classmates by first-grader and Ho-Chunk Nation member J.J. Bowling, kicked off a day intended to increase recognition of the contributions Native Americans have made to Wisconsin.
As his fellow students gathered around him on the floor, J.J. clutched the feather and explained, “My Choka gave it to my dad” — meaning his grandfather presented it to his father — and that it might someday be passed down to him as a good luck symbol.
With J.J. a bit shy about talking in front of the whole class and media representatives, his teacher, Jamie Dummer, shared this description of the feather’s meaning as described by the boy’s father: “It’s kind of like a spiritual messenger and it takes prayers and words from people up to their creator.”
The presentation marked a fitting start to Wisconsin’s fledgling Indigenous People’s Day, which Democratic Gov. Tony Evers last week designated by executive order as the second Monday of each October — a state observance that will coincide with the federal Columbus Day. Wisconsin is home to 11 recognized Native American tribes.
Other states that have moved away from observing Columbus Day include Minnesota, Vermont, Florida, Hawaii, Alaska, New Mexico and South Dakota. The Eau Claire City Council passed a resolution in 2017 observing Indigenous People’s Day, and Menomonie followed suit this July.
On Monday Evers tweeted: “Today we celebrate #IndigenousPeoplesDay. Wisconsin would not be all that it is without our Native Nations. I look forward to continuing to work with indigenous peoples and tribal communities in Wisconsin to make our state a more equitable, inclusive, and just place.”
Following J.J.’s eagle feather show and tell, Dummer read the class a book titled “Brother Eagle, Sister Sky” that helped put the newly declared day in context. An introductory passage read: “In a time so long ago that nearly all traces of it are lost in the prairie dust, an ancient people were a part of the land that we love and call America.”
The book emphasizes Native Americans’ respect for nature, with Chief Seattle at one point declaring, “We are part of the earth, and it is part of us. The perfumed flowers are our sisters. The bear, the deer, the great eagle, these are our brothers.”
In first grade, Dummer said, the curriculum calls for a lot of discussion about different cultures, and having students share real-life experiences helps bring those lessons home, so she often spends extra time on cultures represented in her classroom that year.
“Having someone in their class from those other cultures and backgrounds definitely is a bonus because then they see it in action in that student’s life and the way that their family celebrates and is involved with their tribe in different ways,” Dummer said.
Elissa Knight, a literacy coach at the school, knows of four Native American students at Putnam Heights and said their families were excited about the chance to share part of their culture.
Knight, who also shared resources with teachers that they could use to introduce students to topics related to Native Americans throughout the week, said she believes planning activities to celebrate Indigenous People’s Day will promote cultural pride for those children and and greater understanding among their classmates.
“It means something to students who have a tribal connection,” Knight said. “I hope that students feel their culture, even if it’s outside the mainstream, is respected and appreciated, and that they’re allowed to take pride and share that piece of them that a lot of times their classmates wouldn’t know about.”
The school has taken more steps in recent years to recognize the diversity in its student population — from painting the word for “hello” in multiple languages in the entryway to occasionally repeating announcements in languages spoken by students other than English.
“You can see children’s faces light up when they hear their home language,” she said, referring to the multilingual announcements the school tried around its multicultural fair in April.
The fair has grown every year, and participation last year reached nearly 500 people.