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History comes alive for local students through historical characters

Courtesy photo
Nitro resident Doug Wood portrays Cherokee leader Ostenaco in History Alive! programs throughout the state. History Alive! is sponsored by the West Virginia Humanities Council, and its historical presenters visit approximately 200 libraries, schools and other nonprofit organizations each year.
Courtesy photo Joey Anania, a junior at the Minerva Center for Academic Success, models the bearskin "coat" that helped keep Ostenaco and other Native Americans warm in the winter.

 By MaryKathryn Sheets

The Minerva Center for Academic Success

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- For students such as myself, who have a difficult time relating to events that happened very long ago, seeing a Cherokee warrior from the 1700s in "real life" can help understand an important period in American history. Thanks to History Alive!, sponsored by the West Virginia Humanities Council, Ostenaco recently paid a visit to my school.

Portrayed by Nitro resident Doug Wood, Ostenaco was a Cherokee warrior who played an important role in the French and Indian War. Having earned the rank "Mankiller" (the second-highest fighting rank among the Cherokees), Ostenaco recruited warriors, led war parties and conducted diplomatic missions. Despite his unremitting attempts, the Cherokee war campaign failed largely in part because of the slow-moving, hunger-ridden Virginian allies.

The French and Indian War, a bloody battle that went on for seven years (much right here in our backyards) began May 18, 1756, when the British formally declared war on the French. When I read about it in my history textbooks, I really never gave it much thought.

However, when you listen to an Indian in full period dress talk to you about the battles and how the colonists would not heed the advice of the Cherokees who led the war parties, you get a pretty good picture of the events that transpired in the wooded frontier west of the Appalachian Mountains.

At the end of his talk, when Wood asked for questions, he often said that, as Ostenaco, he didn't know the answers. However, he was quick to point out that while his character wouldn't know the answers, he could go out of character to answer our questions.

Wood had full bearskins that some of us put on; they were warmer than any down parka on the market today. Some of us carried the entire equipment pack the Cherokees toted on their backs.

After the presentation, Wood joined our parents, teachers, visitors and us for lunch, and he continued to share stories about Ostenaco's life, family and adventures. His passion for the character he portrayed was contagious.

My classmates were in unison in our enjoyment of the presentation. They expressed interest in different aspects of Wood's performance, though.

"I learned that the Native American women, some up to 90 years old, would carry heavy animal hides on their head. I also learned that they respected the animals that they hunted," said junior Joey Anania.

The transportation of things also made an impact on Alex Pennington. "Carrying deerskins and equipment on their backs seemed weird, but it was fascinating," the seventh-grader said.

Charlie Vogel, an eighth-grader, said, "Ostenaco's garments were neat, and I learned a lot about Native American culture. One my favorite stories was how they hunted a sleeping bear."

The realistic attire also grabbed the attention of sophomore Nate Wright. "That bird feather through his nose was something else."

It wasn't just students who learned something. Our teacher, Judie Smith, told Wood, "It's funny; you learn the colonists won the Revolutionary War because they knew how to fight and the Redcoats didn't adapt their military style to the rugged terrain of the colonies, but none of the history books I read explained that the colonists learned those fighting techniques from Native American warriors such as Ostenaco during the French and Indian War."

Ostenaco is one of 15 characters in the History Alive! program developed by the Humanities Council, a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to sharing history with West Virginians throughout the state. Presenters are available to nonprofit organizations, including libraries, schools, museums, historical societies and civic groups. The presenters make approximately 200 appearances every year.

Mark Payne, the Humanities Council's program director, explained how the presenters are selected: "It's a two-step process. They will send us a written proposal, which will then be reviewed by three people in a committee. Those who are selected will come in and audition in character for another committee. The potential character must be a historian and have some theatrical experience."

There is no doubt that at the Minerva Center in downtown Charleston, a period of American history did come alive for a few hours. Wouldn't it be great if all history lessons could be learned through the characterizations made possible by the Humanities Council's program?

MaryKathryn Sheets is a sophomore at the Minerva Center for Academic Success, a private, non-traditional middle school and high school in Charleston.


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