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.