Education feature: Cultural calling

Students at La Casita Elementary School listen attentively Wednesday as Native American storyteller Debra Morningstar shares stories with the students that demonstrate how to live in balance and harmony. (CNJ staff photo: Andy DeLisle)

By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer

Here, there is no museum mentality.

Rattles, turtle shells, rabbit pelts, animal skulls and handmade crafts are displayed on a table. Little hands run through the pelts, shake the rattles, inspect the skulls.

The display is part of what Debra Morningstar, of Wisconsin, describes as her calling.

The Native American storyteller travels the country teaching students about her tribe, the Iroquois of the Oneida Nation. Morningstar was at La Casita Elementary School Wednesday and will visit other schools in Clovis today and Friday.

She has been a professional storyteller for more than 17 years, abandoning her career as a child social worker to tell traditional Oneida stories instead, she said.

“I feel like I can reach more children through stories. That’s what I was meant to do,” she said.

For about half her life, Morningstar was estranged from her own culture. She was raised by her Caucasian mother and stepfather. She met her father, of the Oneida Nation, in her mid-20s. But his alcoholism led to his death shortly after, she said.

“The healing for me through that trauma came through stories,” Morningstar said.

In her visits to schools, Morningstar doesn’t tiptoe around Native American history.

Dressed in traditional Oneida regalia — a vest embroidered with bright flowers and long, black dress — she told La Casita students the story of her grandmother, who was yanked from her bed at the age of 7 and sent to a boarding school hundreds of miles away from her home. She was given a new name, her Native American clothes were burned, and she was forbidden to speak in her native language. When she did, an instructor hit her fingers with a wooden hammer, Morningstar said.

“It’s a hard story to tell. … It brings a lump in my throat,” she told the students.
“That story I tell in memory and honor of my grandmother who came before me,” she said.

Clovis teachers said they believe learning about other cultures should be an essential part of education.

“It’s really important for children to be aware of other cultures and be aware of diversity,” La Casita instructional coach Cynthia Flores said.