Cowboys and Indians show aims for faithful portrayal of old West

April 19, 1994|By Katherine Richards | Katherine Richards,Sun Staff Writer

Twenty thousand schoolchildren will descend on Blob's Park in Jessup over the next two weeks to see a Wild West show complete with cowboys, Indians and one runt bison named Peanut.

Green Meadows Childrens' Farm, the folks who have brought you haunted hayrides, pumpkin patches and petting farms, now offer "American Indians and Cowboys, Too!"

The show, a cross between a variety show and a traveling museum, opened yesterday and will run weekdays through April 29. It features American Indian dancers, a trick roper, hayrides, hands-on displays of American Indian tools and games, a tepee village and a photo presentation on the role of blacks on the frontier.

"We just consider ourselves in the field trip business," says James Gillen, who founded the show three years ago, along with Ken and Dan Keyes.

Mr. Gillen says they started the Western show because they were looking for a project to complement their fall offerings of hayrides and petting farms. They got the idea after they saw an Indian dance troupe perform.

Their goal is to break down stereotypes about the West and educate children in an entertaining way, Mr. Gillen says. Ninety-nine percent of his business comes from direct mail promotions to schools.

Judy Rollman, director of St. John's Parish Day School in Ellicott City, took six classes of preschool and kindergarten students to a performance last year. This year, she is taking seven classes to the show.

"I thought it was wonderful," she says. "I think it's one of the best field trips we've done."

The show's hosts explain to children that Indians don't say "How!" or call women "squaws," and that each tribe has its own customs.

"I see this as a way of educating the non-natives about my people," said Keith Colston, a co-host of the show and a member of the Tuscarora and Lumbee nations.

"A lot of kids have a stereotype of what a typical Native American should look like," he says. But Mr. Colston, a drug and alcohol abuse counselor and a competitive dancer on the powwow circuit, explains patiently that American Indians are just like anybody else, and not all of them are the same.

He says some children begin to relate to him as a human being instead of a caricature when they see him talking like any other person, and wearing a baseball cap instead of a feathered headdress.

Last year, he says, one group of children traded dance steps with him, watching his fancy dancing and then showing him their break dancing. "They were showing me their moves, and I was showing them my moves," he says.

The show features a village with life-size Lakota and Blackfeet tepees and an Algonquin wigwam. The children have a chance to play Indian games with one staffer and they can handle Indian artifacts.

The program also includes a cowboy rap song, which Mr. Gillen says helps makes the material more accessible to today's children, who may never have heard of Gene Autry or his Cowboy Code of Conduct.

The buffalo, Peanut, was born prematurely two years ago. He is small for his age and very mellow, and hangs out with his traveling companion, a Hereford heifer named Lucy. Children pet him as a guide explains that one theory about why black cavalrymen were called "buffalo soldiers" is that Indians likened their kinky hair to a bison's coat.

The show travels to Philadelphia next, then Houston.

It's not a gold mine, Mr. Gillen says, but it's a great job.

"I've never had so much fun. It doesn't feel like work."

Tickets are $8 each, and there is a discount for groups. For more information, call 799-1166.

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