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Sunday, November 28, 2010

Simple Pursuits Spur Smiles at Museum’s Community Day

Simple Pursuits Spur Smiles at Museum’s Community Day:
Storytelling and crafts highlight Nov. 26 Ffld Museum event
(Appeared 11/28 on
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2010. All Rights Reserved.

Fairfield, CT – What could be more appropriate on this Thanksgiving holiday than to spend a little time with family enjoying simple activities together in the spirit of our forefathers?

That was the theme of “Community Day – The First Thanksgiving”, a program conducted early afternoon Friday Nov. 26 at the Fairfield Museum and History Center, 370 Beach Road. The event offered craft making led by the museum’s Director of Education Christine Jewell and storytelling presented by Janis Us.

An instructor at the Institute for American Indian Studies in Washington, CT, Us is descended on her father’s side from the Mohawk and Shinnacock tribes. Her stories all have Native American themes revolving around animals.

“It takes a long time to become a storyteller,” she told the small audience of parents and their young children. “You have to memorize about 200 stories.”

Us, at 64, is actually still an apprentice training under the guidance of Catamount, an Iroquois storyteller. As to when she can officially claim the storyteller title, Us said, “When I can remember all the stories and all the folklore. I didn’t start until I was in my 40s, so I’ll probably be six feet under before that happens.”

You wouldn’t know Us was still in training to hear her tell tales like “The Beaver, Turtle and Race for the Pond” or “Rabbit and His Extra Long Ears.” The fluidity of the stories, variety of voices and sounds she employed, and her easy manner thoroughly delighted the group.

In an interactive way, Us tapped children from the audience to approach her at the front of the Meeting Room, reach into a “story bag” made from rabbit fur and draw out an animal finger puppet. There were about 15 of these and ranged from rabbits and turtles to moose and beaver.

“Some storytellers have story baskets,” said Us. “I like the mystery of a story bag… and it makes things fun for the kids.”

Us would then relate each tale, integrating the selected finger puppet animal into her presentation. Each story had a moral lesson, which Us would clearly summarize at the conclusion of each telling.

Along one side of the room, Us’ son, Matthew, 38, manned two long tables atop which Native American jewelry, most of which his mother had fashioned, lay.

“She’s been doing this for quite some time,” Matthew commented. “She’s very good at it.”

Jewelry items included bracelets with sky and star themes, bracelets with leaf-shaped charms, Cherokee-style necklaces and chokers made from bone, abalone, glass beads, buffalo horn and leather. There were also story bags like her own, pendants with obsidian stones, hair pins and belt buckle covers.

Pointing to some Iroquois raised beadwork, the storyteller said, “This was almost lost as a craft. We were down to eight elderly workers when a master bead worker went across country and recruited about 3,000 craftsmen to maintain it.”

In a back room of the museum, another group was hard at work making cornhusk dolls and rattles. At one table, Fairfielder April Clyne and her three girls Allison, 2, Abigail, 9, and Alexandra, 7, were putting the finishing touches on their dolls, which were made with cornhusks and twine.

“With girls, it’s all about crafts,” said April.

“I really like to learn about history,” said Abigail. “And I thought this would be fun. I’ve been here before with my Brownie troop.”

Fairfielder Kathy Veenker was overseeing the doll making at an adjacent table, where her daughter Elizabeth, visiting from Washington, D.C., and 3-year-old identical twin granddaughters, Eloise and Charlotte, were seated.

“We’re trying to get back to natural activities and the real roots of Thanksgiving,” said Veenker. Kids watch so much TV… it’s fun to return to simple things, like when I was growing up and in the Girl Scouts. We made our own entertainment.”

Southporter Lorna Savage was keeping on an eye on her own brood – daughter Patricia Bravo, also from Washington, D.C., and grandkids Benjamin, 6, and Maya, 8, who were making rattles using paper towel tubes, markers and rice.

“I thought this would be perfect,” said Savage. “I call Maya my little Martha Stewart. She’s so crafty.”