The art, artifacts of native culture

Living among the Cheyenne inspired man to help preserve and share their tribal heritage

November 05, 2006|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,special to the sun

Gary Scholl laid a piece of deer hide on his desk.

Then he pulled out some containers with black and white beads, removed the lids and dipped a needle down into them.

"You get seven beads on the needle and then sew it into a straight line all the way around the buckskin," the Forest Hill resident said, holding up a needle to count the beads on it.

Scholl was working on a pair of beaded moccasins, a skill he learned while living in Hammon, Okla., among a community of Southern Cheyenne Indians from 1971 to 1973.

Scholl's education in Plains Indian traditions and customs did not end when he left Oklahoma.

"When I left the tribe, I came away thinking that I had contributed very little to the tribe," said Scholl, 57, who helped the Cheyenne begin a Head Start program, among other things. "But the influence they had on me will last my lifetime."

For more than three decades, Scholl has been participating in a cultural exchange with the Cheyenne people. A longtime Harford resident who is of Scottish and German descent, he has learned Cheyenne customs and traditions, amassed a collection of hundreds of pieces of Native American art, and added to his repertoire of artistic skills.

Today he will present a program he created in an effort to help the Cheyenne preserve the rich heritage they shared with him. The presentation, which will include a beadwork demonstration and lessons on tribal customs and how to build a tepee, will take place from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. at the Hays House Museum in Bel Air.

Scholl started the program in an effort to give back to the tribe that had given him so much, he said.

"There is a lot the Cheyenne can teach us," he said.

Scholl developed an interest in working with the Cheyenne in 1970 after reading Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Alexander Brown. The book depicts the plight of Native Americans from 1860 to 1890.

"That book brought home to me the injustices and suffering of the Indians," Scholl said.

After graduating from Western Maryland College (now McDaniel College) in 1971 with a degree in political science, Scholl joined the Mennonite Voluntary Service and went to Hammon in western Oklahoma.

He worked with children who lived in homes where Cheyenne was the only language spoken, helping them prepare for public school.

While living in the Cheyenne community, Scholl befriended a couple, Henry and Blanche White Shield, who became his surrogate grandparents, he said.

"Henry embodied all the characteristics of a Cheyenne chief," Scholl said. "They taught me about dignity, generosity and giving."

The White Shields taught Scholl their tribal customs, which he incorporates into his public presentation and in the anthropology class he teaches at John Carroll School.

On a recent afternoon, 18 exchange students from Hildesheim, Germany, visited Scholl's home. They built a tepee and participated in a scavenger hunt to test their knowledge of Native American art.

Silke Meier said it was an enlightening experience.

"I learned all the different uses the Indians had for buffalo," the 16-year-old said. "They had a use for every part of the animal."

Nathalie Graem, 16, was also impressed by Indians' resourcefulness.

"They knew how to live with whatever they had available," he said.

After the students built the tepee and played games around a fire in it, Scholl discussed tribal customs. He pointed out a row of four beaded, turtle-shaped objects called umbilical pouches that hang on a wall in his living room.

"They are made for newborn babies, and a piece of the umbilical cord is sewn into the pouch and hung on the baby's crib for good luck," Scholl said. "The umbilical cord is put in the pouch for two reasons: It's a symbol of the child's connection to its mother and the life source of the cord itself."

Other items in his collection include drums, moccasins, clothing, bows, arrows and a headdress. The headdress, also called a war bonnet, was given to Scholl by Blanche White Shield after her husband died.

"Blanche brought out this old suitcase and gave it to me," he said. "I was shocked when I opened it and found the war bonnet. I don't wear it. The headdress was a symbol of tribal leadership, and unless you are a member of the tribe and have a leadership position, it isn't proper to wear it."

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