THOUSAND OAKS : Fifth-Graders Get a Whiff of Indian Customs

Floyd Beller banged a drum and sang an American-Indian song of honor while David Dixon carried a bowl of burning, smoking sage around a circle of about 50 Thousand Oaks fifth-graders.

Dixon, a self-described medicine man descended from three tribes in the eastern United States, used an eagle feather to push smoke toward each child before brushing the feather over each student's forehead.

Meant to familiarize the students with a custom of American Indians, the display of a traditional "smudging" ceremony Tuesday at University Elementary School drew some giggles.

"Second-hand smoke is bad for your health," quipped 11-year-old William Velasquez to his friends.

But it also seemed to stimulate the students' curiosity.

"It was weird and interesting," said Kyle Hindley, 10.

"It smelled bad," complained Pavni Mehrotra, 9.

It makes book lessons seem more real, added 10-year-old Katie Bergfeld, "because we get to see a real ceremony the way they do it."

The ceremony is not religious, said Beller, coordinator of the Ventura County Indian Education Consortium. Instead, it signifies a cleansing ritual that Beller likened to the modern-day belief in washing hands before dinner.

"Our people believe sage is very sacred," Beller told the children before he began. "It purifies houses; it purifies us."

The Indian education program operated by Beller in seven Ventura County school districts focuses mainly on providing tutoring and monthly 45-minute lessons to the 750 American-Indian students attending those districts.

But Beller conducts the smudging ceremony and teaches lessons to integrated classes if teachers request it, he said. As the percentage of the nation's minority populations continue to surge, teaching about different cultures in school takes on more importance, Beller said.

"We have to educate our children that there are other people that make up the United States," Beller said. "And as far as the Indian population goes, we want to emphasize that we're still here."

The consortium was founded in 1974 by officials in the Ventura Unified School District and operates with a federal grant issued each year to support Indian education. Other participating districts include Simi Valley Unified, Conejo Valley Unified, Fillmore Unified, Oxnard Elementary and Oxnard Union High School.

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