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Lincoln County Extension helps Iowa Tribe youth learn how cool pumpkins (and the kids themselves) really are

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Jessica Riggin (left) and the Iowa Tribe's Sammy Jones tackle kitchen safety while exploring all that pumpkins can teach. (Photo by Donald Stotts)
Jessica Riggin (left) and the Iowa Tribe’s Cash Sharpton sweeten the deal while leading a discussion about what making taste-tempting pumpkin bread can teach one. Hint: It is a lot more than one might think. (Photo by Donald Stotts)
From the bowl to the pan to a stomach near you: young Cyrus Switch channels centuries of tribal pumpkin use with a 21st century technological twist. (Photo by Donald Stotts)

Kitchen safety, good nutrition, gardening for food and Native American history were all on the menu Nov. 14 as Iowa Tribe youth working with the Lincoln County Extension Office used the making of pumpkin bread to develop lifelong skills while learning more about themselves and America’s native tribes in the process.

“An interactive experience is one of the best ways for people of all ages to learn new things, and can be especially valued by pre-teens and teenagers who might come into a situation unsure whether or not it will be of interest to them,” said Jessica Riggin, Lincoln County Extension director. “Besides, it’s fun.”

When asked, the fun part was mentioned quickly by Iowa Tribe participants Samantha Hill, Ellie Lerrel, Isaac Twoguns, Sammy Jones, Max and Bobby Robedeaux, Romulke Pewewardy, Cash Sharpton and Cyrus Switch; things learned followed a bit more thoughtfully but in no less detail, and sometimes with an amusing if memorable twist.

“Sammy saved the day,” several of them pointed out, each of them grinning. It was true. Partway through the group’s food preparation process, an obligatory difficult can opening – which affects every food preparer at some point – threatened to derail the flow of things. Riggin turned the mishap into a teachable moment and with young Mr. Jones’ can-defeating assistance, passed on valuable – and timely – kitchen safety and food preparation skills to one and all.

“Somebody hearing this might think it’s no big deal but it was a first for these kids, and something that may well stick with them throughout their lives, and possibly even serve as a reminder for everything else that was discussed, from how tribes grew and used pumpkins and whether or not a pumpkin is a vegetable or a fruit, to how a garden can ensure a family has access to good nutrition and even the importance of lifelong learning,” said Stacey Williams, a Perkins school teacher who also serves as a tutor to Iowa Tribe youth.

Do you know the color of pumpkin flowers in the garden? How about the texture of the leaves? Do you know historic tribal pumpkin-cooking preparation methods? The practicality of mathematics, as in ensuring proper ratios of ingredients gleaned from reading information on a nutritional label, which may be set for a specific size different from that used in the actual dish?

“I bet a lot of adults don’t know those things,” said Bobby Robedeaux as brother Max nodded in agreement. Science, history, language, math and even critical thinking were all on the menu, even if they were not immediately recognized as such by every participant.

Early Native Americans roasted pumpkin strips over campfires and used them as a food source, long before the arrival of European explorers. They used the sweet flesh in numerous ways: roasted, baked, parched, boiled and dried. They ate pumpkin seeds and also used them as a medicine. Blossoms were added to stews. Dried pumpkin could be stored and ground into flour.

“I liked learning how they dried the outside of a pumpkin and used it as a bowl to store grain, beans or seeds,” Sharpton said. “That was clever.”

Archaeology indicates Native Americans even pounded and dried the pumpkin flesh into strips, and then wove the strips into mats which they used for trading purposes.

“It was a good program,” said Tamera Perry, Iowa Tribe education specialist and cooperating partner with Riggin. “Many of the kids had big smiles on their faces as they did their part. Near the end, they had to recall much of what had been taught when Jessica handed out some game-type worksheets. She would ask questions and they would answer aloud as a group.”

It was not the first time Riggin, who also serves as the Lincoln County Extension family and consumer sciences educator, has married a hands-on approach with food to enrich the lives of Iowa Tribe youth, working with tribal officials and youth tutors to develop the educational programs.

“I like the time she came and we made apple butter,” Hill said of Riggin. That one was quite the hit with adults in the room as well. “You can put it on all sorts of things,” Switch added, a soft-spoken girl a bit on the shy side but lighting up at the memory.

In terms of providing educational programs to Iowa Tribe youth, members of the Lincoln County Extension Office typically are cooperating partners with the tribe’s official after-school program and summer youth program: 10-12 years of age during the school year but younger down to five years of age during the summer.

“Topic-wise it is something different every time, depending on which of us is involved,” Riggin said. “As the FCS educator, mine often revolves around food. The presentations generally last for 30 minutes to an hour, and we try to make them as interactive as possible; and fun, we try to make them fun.”

Lincoln County Extension: All That and More

Ross Sestak, longtime 4-H educator with the Lincoln County Extension Office, is currently working with the Iowa Tribe to set up a youth rocketry program.

“We tried earlier but building and flying rockets is an outdoor activity and we hit bad weather the last time we attempted it,” he said. “But we’re trying again. It is a natural expansion of what we do county-wide with our young people. Our 4-H science and technology programs can literally open their eyes to career options they might not have thought about previously.”

Lincoln County 4-H uses an air-based water-fueled system that employs tubular pop bottles in its rocketry program, letting youth participants have fun channeling their inner MacGyver while learning basic and applied science. Yes, math is involved but it is cool math: fuel-to-air ratios, thoughtful rocket design to ensure maximum lift capability and the like. Many a participant wonders whether or not he or she can get everything right at first but when the rocket is eventually made and launches skyward it is so worth it. Talk about a confidence builder.

“The 4-Hers turn it in to a little friendly competition, seeing whose rocket can stay aloft the longest,” Sestak said. “Good design is a major factor. Some rockets fly once while others may be launched six or seven times.”

It is no surprise the science and technology programs often act as a doorway to other educational experiences 4-H has to offer.

“They’ve got a certain ‘Wow’ factor that draws attention,” Sestak said. “There are so many things a young person can do through 4-H that it can come as a surprise. Check us out. Make friends, do fun things and explore your possibilities.”

Cody Linker, Lincoln County Extension agricultural educator, has worked with Perry to provide mainly garden-based educational experiences to Iowa Tribe youth.

“She wanted to institute educational programs revolving around raised-bed gardening, from their construction to nutrient needs of different types of crops; plant, weed and insect management; timing of related and needed activities throughout the growing season; basically, everything that goes into successful gardening, not only as an activity itself but as a way to stretch people’s food dollar and make for a more diverse, nutritious diet,” he said. “That is pretty important stuff, and we’re happy to help.”

Perry recounted to Linker the effort was quite the success this year. The Iowa Tribe youth had been harvesting their garden crops right through October.

Oklahoma State University’s state and federally mandated land-grant mission is to help state citizens solve issues and concerns of importance to them, their families and their communities. Randy Taylor, OSU Cooperative Extension assistant director, said the ongoing efforts of the Lincoln County Extension Office are a testament to that mission.

“In Extension we measure our successes by how we help others to succeed,” Taylor said. “That is who we are at our core. The land-grant mission is as important today as ever.”

The Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service is a state agency administered by OSU’s Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources, and has been one of the three foundations of the university since 1914.

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