The class began with smudging. Standing in a circle, 13 children passed around a bowl containing burning bits of sage, cedar and tobacco. As the bowl came around, the children pretended to bathe their faces and bodies in the aromatic smoke, performing sort of a ritualistic cleansing.
"Thank you for this wonderful day and our food, water and clouds," one of them intoned.
Later, after being shown slides of traditional and modern American Indian art, they were given pastel-colored oil pencils and told to draw. Then they were told a story about a spiritual stone, and were asked to write.
"It's a chance for them to tell people who they are," said Anna Christensen, host to this group of American Indian children in Long Beach.
Backed by a $1,250 grant from the Public Corporation for the Arts, Christensen has devised a program to give local Indian youths an opportunity to celebrate their native culture, and to expose non-Indians to that culture.
"Indians are relatively invisible in the urban context," said Christensen, a Long Beach artist who, although not American Indian, has been involved with the local Indian community for years and has children enrolled in the program. An estimated 3,000 American Indians live in Long Beach, mainly in the northern part of the city, Christensen said.
She is conducting a series of workshops encouraging Indian youngsters ages 2 to 17 to express themselves in poetry and art. She hopes to produce a book that would be distributed to schools and libraries in Long Beach.
The workshops are being held at Homeland Cultural Center, an ethnic-oriented art gallery, and at DeMille Middle School, where frequent intertribal Indian gatherings--called powwows--are held.
The recent Saturday night session in the school cafeteria took place about 100 yards from the powwow in the gymnasium, where the sound of the dancers' drums mingled with the smell of fried bread.
The children's finished pastel drawings depicted everything from rainbows to houses. And their poetry, written in childish scrawls, ran the gamut from comments on the state of their world to descriptions of their fantasies.
"I dance to let my bad feelings free," one 13-year-old boy wrote. "I dance for me. I dance for the future generations, to teach them and hope they will learn."
A 6-year-old participant wrote: "I wouly like godzilla to be my sperichla gide becauso he is pawerful."
Some of the youngsters, such as Skye Alford, expressed themes relating to racial conflict, Christensen said. "Integration has been wonderful," she said, "but (these) kids are on the front lines a lot of times in terms of racial tension. It's hard for a person of color to feel completely comfortable in this society."
More often, Christensen said, the children draw or write on traditional Indian themes. She begins each session with an "ethnic exercise," such as showing slides or telling a story. During the recent workshop, the slides featured works of Indian artists and the story dealt with Indian religious concepts. The story described the magical qualities of a stone in which the story's narrator could see the faces of her ancestors.
Rosita Quintana, 30, brought her two youngsters to the session. "I think it's great," she said. "I came to keep (our) heritage going."
Initially, Christensen said, she hopes to publish about 500 copies of the proposed book, which she expects to have in manuscript form by June. As many as 200 copies are likely to be distributed free to Long Beach libraries and schools, she said, and the rest may be sold in local bookstores and at Indian powwows to help defray the cost of publication. Christensen also said she hopes to receive extra grants to cover some of the costs.
The world is filled with many different races, different people and (different) places . . . Here in this world people disagree and fight, they argue what is wrong or right. People judge other people by the color of their skin. They bring things back that already have been.
I saw a boy pick up a rock and throw it. It fell at my feet. It looked familiar but I didn't know where it came from. I saw faces and my ancestors working in my rock. I saw many other things too. I picked up the rock and took good care of it.
I am sitting like a stone, thinking of how much the world has changed. It used to be plains with Indians and villages. Now it has turned to civilization.
I am sitting like a hot fire, hoping that one day it would be different, hoping the Indians will be free and to live the life they want to live.
I am sitting like a coyote howling at the moon. I will rise up with the Indian spirit and make things better for the Indian's America.
I am sitting like water on the sand, talking to the Great Spirit for the help we need to be free.