March 22, 2006 - When they look back on what they learned in the fourth grade, the students of Harelson Elementary will probably remember the day they used flaming cow patties to make pottery.
At the Catalina State Park on March 9, teachers and parents made an outdoor kiln using horse manure propped up by cinder blocks. Inside, an inferno of burning cow patties and wood turned the students' clay formations into glazed, ceramic pottery.
This smelly but effective oven wasn't the bizarre idea of Harelson art teacher Elizabeth Caris. Native Americans in the Southwest have been making pottery this way for hundreds of years. Why cow patties? As the oxygen is removed inside the oven, the burning manure shoots carbon particles through the clay and gives the finished pottery a glossy, glazed appearance, Caris said.
"I read about this in an art magazine and I wanted to do it. I love cultures and teaching them to kids, and since I teach ceramics, it made sense to marry these two ideas," Caris said. "It's great for the children to live in a part of the country where they'll be exposed to cultures like this."
Caris has been teaching her students to make Native American pottery this way since 1998. Around the pottery-making grew an all-day celebration of Native American crafts and culture known as the Harelson Pitfire and attended by all the fourth-graders at the elementary school.
"This is one of the highlights of the fourth grade. It's a tradition here. You have food, crafts, and culture all tied together," said Andy Heinman, Harelson principal.
In addition to pottery, the students made sand paintings and sopapillas (a deep-fired pastry), learned pottery painting from a Hopi expert, hiked to Hohokam Indian ruins, ate homemade burritos, saw a Mohawk warrior's war-painted horse, and experienced a simulated sweat tent that Native Americans used in lieu of bathing.
For the children, the field trip is both fun and educational.
"It's awesome. We went on this hike to see the Indian ruins, and I learned a lot of interesting stuff. And I learned about the archeologists that study the Indians," said Katrina Munschenk, 9.
Bryn Timmis, 9, said he really enjoys the Native American segment of the Harelson curriculum.
"It's really fun. We learned about clay and tools they used, and about all the different tribes like Hohokam, Anasazi, and Sinagua," Timmis said.
Caris said the event is organized and staffed by the children's parents who also donate most of the supplies. She said they have also been very successful in getting presenters from many different Indian tribes to speak to the children.
Johnny Martin, a Hopi Indian living in Tucson, is an expert in painting pottery and runs a Native American program for the Amphitheater school district. He taught his craft to the Harelson students, including how to dissolve natural minerals to make paint and how to apply it using a Yucca leaf.
The children also met John Martin and his war-painted horse, Sag-awash-way, whose name means "a light shining through clouds." Martin, a Mohawk Indian living in Catalina whose daughter is a former Harelson student, explained to the children the significance of the colorful way his 25-year-old mare was painted. He also explained the significance of the bead designs and dangling deer hooves on the elk-skin Mohawk regalia he wore, as well as the eagle-feather headdress he was awarded by the Native American Veterans Committees for his service in the United States Army. Martin is a combat veteran who spent most of his career directing counter-narcotics operations in South America.
"It's great (the students) are getting a history of North American Indians. A lot of kids have only seen a painted horse on T.V.," Martin said.
Jenny Howard, one of the parent organizers, said she appreciates that Harelson teachers go to such a length to teach Native American culture.
"Just living here in Arizona, it's such a big part of our history," Howard said. "I think (the Harelson Pitfire) is an incredible experience for the kids, and they'll learn things they'll remember forever."