Native American woman turns prejudice into pride

April 30, 1995|By JoAnne C. Broadwater | JoAnne C. Broadwater,Special to The Sun

When Linda Coates was a child growing up in northern Georgia, there were so many prejudices against Native Americans that her family didn't tell her she was part Cherokee.

"It wasn't a good thing to be Native American at that point in time," said Mrs. Coates, 47. "But being Native American has been an anchoring point for me and something I could live my life by."

Her family never spoke of its Native American heritage and didn't reveal the secret to her until she was nearly 30. But her grandmother, Mattie Jordan, who was half-Cherokee, made certain she learned the ways of Native American people as a child.

For the past four years, Mrs. Coates, whose Native American name is Silver Otter, has shared her grandmother's teachings as coordinator of Native American programs for the PECO Energy Co.'s Conowingo Visitors' Information Center on the Susquehanna River in Harford County.

In addition to organizing Native American cultural events, programs and classes as part of her work with the energy company, she also gives presentations in Native American cooking, storytelling, dancing, crafts and daily life to schoolchildren, Scouts and other groups. Last year, 8,500 people took part in the programs, most of which are free.

"When you learn something, it is only complete when you turn around and teach it to someone else," said Mrs. Coates, who lives in Cecil County and has studied with elders of the Seneca, Cherokee, Chippewa, Cree and Lakota tribes.

She said the Susquehannocks roamed northeastern Maryland and southern Pennsylvania until the 1700s, when the region fell under Iroquois influence.

"I want the students to understand that Native Americans have influenced how we've grown to be as a nation," Mrs. Coates said. Twenty-six states have Native American names, and the only alphabet developed in this country belonged to the Cherokee, she said.

During her programs, Mrs. Coates often wears regalia, Native American buckskin tunic, skirt, shoulder drape and wrap, and tie leggings made from the hides of six deer.

This month, she gave a presentation to second-grade students at Norrisville Elementary School. Her hair was braided. She wore a choker made from buffalo bones, abalone shell and leather, and a necklace made from a turtle shell.

"I liked her outfit a lot," said 8-year-old Samantha Hiob. "She found the turtle shell. She didn't just go out in the woods and kill it."

Mrs. Coates had come to the northwestern Harford school to talk about "circle thinking," early Native American lifestyles, culture and the many things she learned from her grandmother.

Circle thinking was one of the first things her grandmother wanted to be sure she understood, Mrs. Coates said.

"Routinely, I get calls and letters asking me how 15 million Native Americans lived in the United States before the Europeans got here and didn't have a strong impact on the environment," she said.

"I draw a circle and send it to them. Everything that was ever created is necessary to the circle. Everything in the circle affects every other thing," she said. "Native people are very aware that everything is important."

That is circle thinking, which recognizes the importance of protecting natural resources and avoiding waste.

If a Native American killed a deer, the brains would be used to tan the hide, Mrs. Coates said. Antlers might be used for a slingshot, buttons, arrowheads, fishing hooks or weapons.

"I like the way the Indians thought about circle thinking," said Peter Barry, a second-grader at Norrisville.

"Indians used every part of everything they killed," said Josh Jacques, 7.

Mrs. Coates discussed the lives of Plains Indians, who lived in tepees and followed the buffalo herds that provided their food, clothing and shelter. Hunter-gatherers of the Eastern woodlands were more settled and lived in long houses, structures with a central hall and rooms off of the hall where families lived.

Barbara Kilker, a second-grade teacher at Norrisville, said the demonstration gave her students more of an understanding of the Native American culture and the respect for the Earth.

"We want to reinforce what we've been learning in school about culture, ways of travel, clothing, homes and food," said Lynne Swanenburg, another second-grade teacher.

During the presentation, the children learned a native song and several Cherokee words. "O-si-yo" means hello, and "wa-do" is thank you.

"It was neat because I got to talk the Indian language," Eric Volk, 7, said of Mrs. Coates' visit.

The children also heard stories of a Native American cat that responds only to Cherokee words and tales of how the bear got a short, stubby tail and why the corn-shuck doll doesn't have a face.

At one point, Mrs. Coates asked the children how many of them had eaten Native American foods.

"Most students are surprised at the number of native foods that we continue to eat, including potatoes, corn, beans and squash," she said. A Native American treat made of maple syrup, berries, nuts, seeds and popcorn was similar to Cracker Jack and "was one of the first recipes Native Americans shared."

"It was neat to learn that there could be purple potatoes," said William Mayer, 8, referring to an early Native American variety of potato Mrs. Coates still grows and cooks.

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