HANOVER, N.H. – Amid the buzz of a chain saw and banging hammers, a group of Dartmouth College students help cut down an ash tree and strip the bark that would eventually be used to make traditional Native baskets.
Their outdoor classroom experience is part of the academic outreach and hands-on learning that has helped Dartmouth graduate more Native Americans than any other Ivy League institution since its recommitment to the Native community in the early 1970's. The classes not only promote understanding of indigenous people, but also give some Native American students a chance to connect with their roots.
"You don't get to chop wood or scrape a moose hide in a regular classroom," said Ha'aheo Hanohano, a 21-year old junior who is Native Hawaiian.
Native Americans represent 4 percent of the student body, double their percentage of the general U.S. population according to the 2014 census, with more than 1,000 alumni. The Native American Community Program has brought hundreds of prospective Native students from all over the country to visit Dartmouth.
The program's academic efforts help students get a sense of what life was like for American Indians who once called much of the Northeast home. Professor Nick Reo said the larger purpose of the class is to shed light on indigenous peoples' connections to nature.
"If we're going to talk about indigenous ways of understanding the world, we need to learn directly from Native people," said Reo, who is a member of the Sault Ste. Marie Chippewa Tribe in Michigan. "In this class, we're connecting with the land."
Reo, who was inspired to start the class by similar hands-on experiences he had at the University of Michigan, required the approximately 20 students — about half Native American — to tan a moose hide to make the head of a ceremonial drum and to study contemporary indigenous hunting practices.
"When we would stop to look at a plant or try to create something, that's when what we we're learning stuck," Reo said. "The only way to let animals and the land become our teachers is by spending time outside."
Alex Hawley, a 21-year-old Native American from Utah, said the class has exposed her to Native traditions from the Northeast which she found different than those from her Navajo tribe in Utah.
"It's nice to get out of my own tribe and experience different ways of making art," Hawley said. "Navajos weave rugs, so making baskets is something I haven't done before."
For those students who are not Native American, the class gives a new appreciation for indigenous traditions and culture.
"I think we need to take a step back and realize that our Western culture doesn't really acknowledge or appreciate the environment in the way Native communities do," said Lauren Jortberg, a 20-year-old sophomore.
Earlier this month at Dartmouth's organic farm, master basket maker Geo Neptune walked students through the basic steps for weaving a traditional basket — many of which are found in museums and are treated as art.
Before chopping down a tree, Neptune, a Dartmouth alumnus who is part of the Passamaquoddy tribe in Indian Township, Maine, offered tobacco to a brown ash tree in a ritualistic practice. Kevin Evans, the college's director of woodland operations, started up the chain saw.
After the tree was felled, the students took mud from a nearby stream. They placed it over the tree stump for regrowth purposes, and then helped each other carry the logs out of the woods and back to the farm. The students stripped the tree's flaky exterior to unveil a smooth inner bark, and processed the log into strips of wood. Neptune hopes to turn the materials into baskets at his reservation.
"This is the sound of creation," Neptune said, as he pounded the tree log with a mallet.