Colleen Setchell: Guest Blogger - Travel Writer and Photographer
I held the tomahawk with my right hand and extended it over my right shoulder. With my feet together, I fixed my gaze on my target and then, stepping forward with my right foot, threw it over my shoulder straight towards the target. HIT!
Did I hit a deer? A squirrel, or some other edible creature? No, it was a lump of wood and American Indian Michael Pace was teaching me how to throw a traditional Lenape Indian tomahawk in the Lenape Indian Camp at Conner Prairie Interactive History Park.
How wonderful to be here at Conner Prairie on the outskirts of Indianapolis, Indiana. I am from South Africa, and I grew up learning about fierce Zulu warriors who fought against the British and the Boers. Sadly, the only knowledge I had about American Indians and the original settlers in America, was all learned from movies, and let’s face it, we all know how biased they can be.
So, I’ve come here to learn about America in the period from 1823 to 1863. This huge park is split into different sections that enable you to see how life was tackled back in that time period.
I headed straight for the Lenape (also known as Delaware) Indian Camp, where you can learn about the culture of these fascinating people when they lived in this area from 1795 to 1820. In this imitation village, volunteers showed me how to make beaded jewelry, grind corn, build wigwams from Tulip Poplar bark and animal skins (and later sails from sailors), identify animal skins (deer, beaver, raccoons and otters) and my favorite part of all, throw Tomahawks. This was extra special because Michael Pace, who I mentioned earlier, was descended directly from the Delaware Tribe. In traditional dress and with Delaware markings on his face (two bold red lines under each eye drawn up towards the hairline), he spent a while trying to help me perfect my tomahawk throw and telling me about his people.
Tomahawks were used as a tool for building. The skills were learned when the children played games by attempting to throw spears through moving hoops that got smaller as they got older. This helped them develop their hand and eye coordination and helped a great deal when hunting later in life. Boys and girls learned both tomahawk or spear throwing and beading or silverware, and this meant there was never a shortage of skills in a tribe. The Delaware Indians are the 25th largest tribe in America and they still have regular tribal meetings, even though they are now spread over a large area. Wisconsin, Oklahoma and Ontario, Canada, house the main groups. I thanked Michael (my newly learned Lenape meant I could say “Wanishi”) for his time and wealth of information and headed out to explore more of Conner Prairie.
After a short visit to the Conner Homestead, where William Conner, an American trader, interpreter, scout, community leader, entrepreneur and politician, lived, I did a quick detour to the nearby Animal Encounters Barn and petted most of the adorable animals. Then, I arrived in 1836 Prairietown
. I passed signs before the entrance reminding me that I was entering a period where no cell phones, Internet or TV existed. I shuddered at the thought and held my iPhone closer to me.
I had a fascinating talk with the blacksmith about weird and wonderful foods, and he told me all about otters being too fatty to eat, how squirrel tasted like chicken, and how tasty turtle is when it is cut into strips and fried. His apprentice listened in the background while learning how to bend metal in the fire.
I visited Whitaker’s store and watched some children trying to earn money by helping Mr. Whitaker, the store owner. I walked past Dr. Campbell’s office and home and watched the residents teaching visitors old yard games while others played fiddle music in the background.
The sun beat down and the dust covered my feet and flip-flops, and I wondered how the female residents with their long dresses and bonnets managed in the heat. How I loved my shorts and flip-flops now! Pavement wasn’t invented until the 1900s, so I sipped what seemed now to be luxurious bottled water and walked on through the dust.
Around the corner and past McClure’s Carpenter Shop and home, I discovered my chance to live in Prairietown – a cabin for sale – a single story, one-roomed cottage with a bed in one corner and a table and fireplace in the other. I was able to walk inside the cottage, see how the bed was made with rope crisscrossed across a wooden frame and the mattress with a layer of straw covered with a sheet. I thought lovingly of my queen-sized memory foam mattress back home. As cute as the cottage was, I decided that I wouldn’t buy it on this occasion.
A short walk away and over the covered bridge, I entered 1863
and an imitation village attacked during the Civil War. I was greeted by a soldier who called me “Ma’am,” and with his wonderful drawl and accent, I was tempted to ask him to repeat it because it sounded delightful. He directed me to the village store and after more visitors joined us, we were shown a video that was cleverly projected onto the windows and the area behind the counter. That coupled with a real soldier coming in and out, it really felt like we were part of the experience.
“Watch out, they’re coming with guns and trashing the store!” said the soldier.
As if on cue, real shelves fell next to where I was standing and I squealed with fright. I clutched the telegram I was given by the soldier fearfully behind my back as a projection of General John Hunt Morgan confronted us about hiding a telegram. I was thankful and excited when he walked away because I had a small taste of what it must have been like during the Civil War raid on Dupont, Indiana.
My visit was almost over, and I had just enough time to enjoy an ice-cold soda in the Café on the Common and watch the 1859 Balloon Voyage.
This was a memorable visit with loads of interactive things for both adults and kids to take part in. Conner Prairie was a massive learning experience for a foreigner such as myself and a place which I would return to again and again.
Thank you, Conner Prairie, for making American history come alive for me.
Colleen Setchell is a writer, photographer and enthusiastic explorer who's jumped off cliffs in South Africa, dived with sharks in Egypt, been lost in the spice market in Istanbul, and eaten unpronounceable things in Gambia. She calls England home but is an explorer at heart and is at her happiest when she's living out of a suitcase and always excited to see where she'll end up next. Colleen writes about her travel adventures on her blog www.writearoundtheworld.me and currently freelances for various magazines and websites.
Pamela Jackson - Guest Services
A lot can happen in a year. In June 2010 I began writing this blog, just as Conner Prairie was seeing record attendance and popularity for its programs. Now in 2011, Conner Prairie Interactive History Park is reinventing itself yet again. I’m talking about the opening of the 1863 Civil War: Raid on Indiana
experience, which debuted in early June.
I can truly say I’m excited about what I saw and did in my own tour of the 1863 Civil War Journey and eager to hear the reactions of our guests. This is different from anything Conner Prairie has ever attempted before. Do join us this season and immerse yourself in the awe-inspiring stories of Indiana’s brush with Morgan’s Raiders in 1863. I came away with a feeling of great pride, not only in what our ancestors were able to accomplish, but in the vision of the many people who worked countless hours to bring this experience to life for our guests.
But hey – let’s not forget that Conner Prairie is more than just one exhibit. We still have numerous other attractions to interest you and your family. It’s still 1836 in Prairietown, 25 years ahead of the Civil War, and the residents are busy working in their homes or gardens, making plans for the upcoming 60th anniversary of our country’s birth on July 4, or yes, gossiping about their neighbors (which they love to share with you!). There are baby animals in the Animal Encounters Barn
who need to be fed and petted, Lenape Camp is hosting tomahawk throwing contests, and William Conner’s Homestead is still standing vigil on the prairie (actually a flood plain), as it has since 1823.
So come out to Conner Prairie Interactive History Park this summer and see what’s new about the 1800s. There’s always something exciting going on!
This winter, we have been hard at working tweaking our daily programs and designing new ones in preparation for the 2011 season. With April first less than 3 weeks away, we have shifted into top gear to get all of our programs, buildings, and staff ready to engage the tens of thousands of guests who will visit Conner Prairie this year.
Opening Weekend is sure to be a smorgasbord of experiences, both new and old. If you’ve never been to Conner Prairie
before, April 1st, 2nd, and 3rd will be a great time to come to get a sense of all we have to offer. If you know and love Conner Prairie, the first three days of April will be a great chance to get your ‘fix’ of all the great experiences that have lay dormant all winter, as well as a taste (literally and figuratively) of what is to come.
Some of 2011’s new experiences that you can try out on Opening Weekend include:
- The Campbell Family Party, where Dr. and Mrs. Campbell welcome all new and potential neighbors to come and enjoy singing, dancing, games and more.
- A new pottery shop is going to be built in Prairietown, and construction has already begun! You may be able to help out with the timber frame construction across from the Cabin for Sale. Never fear, though, pottery demonstrations will continue in the former shop until the new site is ready!
- A horse packing activity will be ready and waiting for folks in the Lenape Camp – you’ll have the chance to see how much a horse could carry, and what might have to be left behind!
Of course, there are a lot of ‘favorite’ programs that will be back for 2011, including:
- Taste the Past
: This year, Mrs. Curtis is sharing her collection of recipes with the world. During Opening Weekend, you’ll have the chance to nibble on her home-made maple gingerbread.
- Animal Encounters
: As always, Kevyn and his staff will have the barn stocked with cute & fuzzy barnyard creatures for you to meet and learn all about.
- Science Lab
: There will be even more new and fun ways to explore the science of the past this year. Come to the Science Lab to find out more!
Of course, there are lots of other new and interesting nuances to the 2011 season that you’ll only be able to experience if you come back throughout the year. For example, we will be trying out new and fun ways to help you explore Prairietown – everything from uncovering the latest gossip to allowing you to build your skills in certain areas of expertise. And, of course, there’s always 1863 Civil War Journey
, which is set to open on June 4th – anyone who loves Conner Prairie and/or the Civil War will definitely want to come back for that experience once it opens!
It’s sure to be another fun and exciting year here – we can’t wait to share it with you!