American Indian Talking Sticks
A fun activity with a little learning on the side
Yes, I know. If you work with kids then you probably have already done an art project on Native American Indian Talking Sticks. If you have then this is simply a reminder of how you can use talking sticks to teach American Tribal Culture, communal decision making, and tribal law all while having a good time. If you haven’t used talking sticks then get ready to have some fun watching your kids be creative.
This week, my Global Passport kids came in to find our craft table set up with:
- A bag of assorted sticks the I had set aside the last time I did some yard tree trimming.
- A bag of donated yarn and ribbon that I had pulled out of our craft supply closet.
- Three bottles of white glue.
- My jealously guarded sharpie pens in various colors.
- Two bags of feathers, white and brown, which had also been donated to our craft supplies,
- Crafting beads of various sizes and shapes.
- Hot Glue (optional)
- Images of American Indian Talking Sticks, both traditional and kid inspired. (not optional so here is a great link for inspiration.)
- A sample talking stick that I has made earlier.
As I had hoped, as soon as the kids came in, they began asking questions.
“It’s a talking stick. You can each have a chance to make one. Some American Indian Tribes used them whenever they had important decisions to make. There are even a few tribes in Africa that used them. They are a way for people to make communal decisions and make sure everyone gets heard.
“Well did you know that most Native Americans lived in tribes where they had no President, no Prime Minister, no judges, no kings, no queens, no governors, no police, no prisons?”
“They did choose chiefs to lead their tribes, but even the chiefs didn’t make important decisions alone. They would hold a council and the tribe would make their decisions communally.”
“Communally means that every one in the community would have a say in making the decisions. Everybody at the council was an equal, so everybody had the right to talk. The taking sticks helped them make sure that everyone had a chance to speak. Shall I show you how it works?”
Lots of nodding faces.
“Okay, so if nobody is holding the talking stick then we can all talk at once. Let’s try it. Let’s all talk at once.”
After a bit more coxing, they were all talking at once. I held up the talking stick and said in my loud voice, “BUT if someone is holding the talking stick only they can speak and everyone else must listen to them.” I know that they understood because they were suddenly silent and giving me their undivided attention, almost as if we were playing a game and they wanted to win. I continued with my little lesson. “Now it would be hard to have a discussion with us all talking at once, wouldn’t it?”
A few kids started to answer but I held up the talking stick and reminded them, “Only the person with the talking stick may talk, everyone else must listen.” Silence followed easily. “The talking stick made sure that everyone who wanted to speak had a chance to be heard. The talking stick was treated with a lot of respect and the person who held it was important. But anybody could hold it, so everyone was equally important. Even the chiefs could not speak without the talking stick; they would just use their hands to indicate who would get the stick next. For example, right now I have the stick so I can talk, but if I give the stick to Stephanie like this…” I give her the stick and begin to mime that I can’t speak. I hear a few giggles. I point to Stephanie with my eyebrows raised. She looks at the stick in her hand then hands it back to me.
“Do you see,” I say with the stick in my hand. “Even the chiefs can’t speak unless they are holding the stick. Does anybody want to say something?” Every hand goes up and we spend a few minutes passing around the talking stick. I finally get the stick back, and ask them, “Shall we try it to hold a tribal council?”
Lots of nods.
“Okay, you know how in the play we are practicing Oblio gets accused of breaking the law and the town holds a meeting to decide what to do?” More nods. “So lets pretend that we are holding a meeting to decide what to do. Pointdexter has accused Oblio of cheating,” I say pointing to the two kids playing Oblio and Pointdexter. “Let the meeting begin.”
What followed was a sort of mock trial where each of the kids contributed their thoughts. Some of the kids just wanted the stick for a chance to talk and when they got the stick, they had nothing to say. I reminded them, when I got the stick back, that the talking stick was for important information that everyone needed to hear in order to judge wisely. Our trial continued, including a tribal vote declaring Obio innocent and Pointdexter a false accuser. By the time we were done, the kids really knew how the talking stick worked.
“So who wants to make a talking stick?” I asked. Every hand shot up, and we spent the rest of the afternoon buried in sticks, glue, ribbons yarn, beads, and feathers. It got a little crazy once all the kids had their own talking sticks, but the kids began to pair up and use them to talk with their friends. They treated them like little microphones that they traded back and forth as they talked. I also have to admit that my own talking stick has become a great tool for getting their attention quickly. Even better, I manage to get one question at a time instead of four flung at me at once.
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