December 1, 2021

Indigenous inspiration

Historians hope to interest children in cultural stories

Sarah Bullock/staff reporter

Susan Weitz, a Cortland County Historical Society volunteer, helps two young boys create landscapes based on Native American stories Saturday morning at the Cortland Free Library.

Ellis McDowell-Loudan lost her heart to the stories of America’s indigenous people while a student.

On Saturday, she hoped to inspire the same love in children.

The retired anthropology professor spent Saturday morning weaving tales for children, part of a series of historical events by the Cortland County Historical Society.

One of the tales McDowell-Loudan told the children was about a beaver who challenged a turtle to a footrace. Beavers are animals with long, powerful tails, she said.

Just as the race began, the turtle tricked the beaver, McDowell-Loudan said.

“Turtle stuck up his neck and grabbed Beaver by the tail with his jaws,” McDowell-Loudan said to the children. Beaver scrambled to dislodge Turtle as he ran toward the finish line, whipping his tail forward. “Turtle won the race because Beaver flung him over the end.”

The children applauded the turtle’s wits before heading to a craft table to create landscapes of the stories they had heard.

“They’re wonderful stories and all of them have a moral,” said McDowell-Loudan, who taught at SUNY Cortland from 1972 until 2019. Indigenous stories captivated her when she was studying at American University in Washington, D.C., and later became her specialty.

“I have a great deal of opportunity to visit up in Onondaga and to visit Haudenosaunee,” she said, the indigenous name of the six-nation alliance of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora.

The stories taught McDowell-Loudan to look at the world with wonder.

“To be surprised every morning when you look up and see the clouds are different,” she said. “To take care of each other and to take care of Mother Earth.”

David Stevens of Cortland watched his son Grayson, 5, listen to the tales.

“It’s good to see him having fun,” Stevens said. And they had a chance to enjoy everyday life post-lockdown. “It’s a bit of normalcy for sure.”

The cultural stories are a great way to get children interested in history, said Susan Weitz, the organizer of the reading series called “Time Travel.”

“This was my dream project,” said Weitz, a volunteer with the Cortland County Historical Society. “I just think that people are better off when they know what came before them. It gives them a better perspective.”

The next reading event, 10 a.m. Dec. 6 at the library, will feature a new children’s book set in 1920s Cortland, Weitz said.