Native American Culture in the Berkshires

Experience Mohican Culture in the Berkshires

United States history is a story that intertwines many cultures and peoples. To fully understand U.S. history and American culture, you must first understanding the impact which Native Americans and European colonists had on each other. The best way to gain insight into any culture is to fully immerse yourself, not only by listening but also by engaging in meals, rituals, musical performances, dances and more. You’re invited to get a glimpse of modern day Mohican culture at the Native American Festival at Mount Greylock.

When Europeans first came to what is now the United States, the area was home to over 300 different languages. Now, due to past U.S. government policies which forced assimilation on Native Americans, only 175 of these languages remain, and many are endangered languages.

The last known fluent speaker of the Mohican language was a Stockbridge resident who died in 1933. As part of a wide movement towards preservation of Native American languages, some Mohican words have been recovered from old dictionaries, letters, books and other written texts. The word Mohican itself comes from the original, “Muhheakanneuw,” which has many translations related to the Hudson river along which this group once resided. One such translation reads: “the people of the waters that are never still.” An interesting difference between English and the Mohican language is that there is no gender distinction between third person pronouns in Mohican. “Pumisoo” is the word for both “he” or “she,” and could be roughly translated to: “that person.” Read the rest of this entry »

Black History Month: Six Featured New Titles Bring History Alive

Open Sesame: Kid Lit Musings and Review by Cheli Mennella

Five New Picks for Kids and One Just for Grown-Ups

In honor of Black History Month, I’ve selected five new kids’ books that bring history alive. Courageous individuals, unsung heroes, and influential, but little-known, events, reach through pages of text, photos, art, and poetry, and connect young readers to the struggles and achievements of the civil rights movement. And as a special addition this month, I have a book recommendation just for grown-ups, because I can’t help spreading the word about a wonderfully outrageous book related to abolitionist John Brown.

Malcolm Little: The Boy Who Grew Up To Become Malcolm X, written by his daughter, Ilyasah Shabazz, and illustrated by AG Ford, tells the story of Malcolm’s boyhood, with a special focus on his parents, Earl and Louise Little, who raised their children with love and “unstoppable optimism and faith.” The enchanted world of his mother’s garden and the stirring speeches of his father help shape Malcolm in his early years. When his father dies and Malcolm and his siblings become wards of the state, his upbringing helps forge an indomitable self-reliance, which carries him through difficult times, and eventually helps him become a zealous leader of equal rights. Lots of emotionally wrought text and rich-hued oil paintings throughout the book’s 48 pages create an intimate portrait of Malcolm’s boyhood. A good read for middle graders and beyond.

Read the rest of this entry »

George Washington Carver: A Life in Poems

Open Sesame: Kid Lit Musings and Review by Cheli Mennella

In honor of Black History Month I want to share an extraordinary book about an extraordinary human being:

Carver, a life in poems (Front Street, 2001) is an intimate portrait of the botanist, inventor, scientist, artist, musician, and teacher, known as George Washington Carver. Written by acclaimed poet, Marilyn Nelson, the book takes us through Carver’s life in a series of narrative poems told from the voices of the people who knew him, and from Carver himself. Wrought with emotion and meaning, Nelson gives us a biographical experience of a man whose imprint on the world is still felt today.

Born a slave in Missouri in 1864, and raised by the white family that owned his mother, Carver seemed to always have a special spark, a reverence and joy for life, a thirst for knowledge, and an independent spirit, which led him to leave home in 1877, to attend school and begin a life-long quest for learning.

Carver’s curiosity, his hunger for answers, his drive to find out why, what if, propelled him into his destiny, and Nelson captures that in the poem, “Drifter“: “Something says find out / why rain falls, what makes corn proud / and squash so humble, the questions / call like a train whistle so at fourteen, / fifteen, eighteen, nineteen still on half-fare, / over the receding landscapes the perceiving self / stares back from the darkening window.”

Carver put himself through high school and college, studying art and science, washing people’s laundry to support himself. His success was continuous. He became known for his green thumb and his artistic talent. His paintings were exhibited at the Chicago World’s Fair, he earned his B.A and M.A. degrees, and joined the faculty at Tuskegee Institute, where he stayed for the rest of his life working on ideas and inventions, from crop rotation and cotton seed to peanut recipes and paint colors. His generous nature dictated that he never profit from his discoveries, instead he gave them away for the benefit of all humankind.

In spare, lyrical language, Nelson takes us through moments in Carver’s life, some public, some private, and reveals a man of uncommon talent and faith. She shows his gifts of observation, his thirst for knowledge, his simmering, creative energy, his insights, and his deep spirituality.

And though Carver’s life was full of the complexities of science and nature, and he never lacked for work to do, the poems also show how he valued simplicity and contemplation. Poems like “Dawn Walk” and “Dimensions of the Milky Way” depict him in quiet conversation with the universe. And light-hearted poems like “The Lace-Maker,” “The Joy of Sewing,” and ”The Wild Garden” express the simple pleasures he took in doing handwork and gathering wild greens. Recurring details like the flowers Carver would wear in the lapels of his second-hand suits not only help us imagine what he looked like but are also tender expressions of his character.

Nelson’s poems do not shy from the harsh racial climate of the era. She portrays Carver’s dedication to the Negro people, and his reactions to lynchings and injustices, with powerful poems like “Goliath.” When his Bible study students ask after another lynching, “Where is God now?” Carver responds, “God is right here. / Don’t lose contact with Him. Don’t yield to fear. / Fear is the root of hate, and hate destroys / the hater … When we lose contact, we see only hate, / only injustice, a giant so great / its shadow blocks our sun. But David slew / Goliath with the only things he knew: / the slingshot of intelligence, and one / pebble of truth.”

Each poem in the book is complete and can stand alone as an exquisite piece of poetry. The poems beckon to be read aloud, and to be read over and over again, peeling back layers of meaning and nuance. Read together in a sequence that spans Carver’s life, with seamless transitions from one poem to the next, and thematic strands that connect the poems to each other, the whole collection creates a stunning portrait of Carver and illuminates the man who he was.

As the book draws to a close, Nelson is able to capture Carver’s divine message of conservation in the poem, “Last Talk with Jim Hardwick”: “When I die I will live again. / By nature I am a conserver. / I have found Nature / to be a conserver, too. / Nothing is wasted / or permanently lost / in Nature. Things / change their form, / but they do not cease / to exist … God would be a bigger fool / than even a man / if He did not conserve / the human soul, / which seems to be / the most important thing / He has yet done in the universe.”

The very last poem, “Moton Field,” connects the past and the present, and Carver to the poet herself. The year is 1943, and we see Carver at the end of his life, penning answers to the letters piled at his bedside. While outside his window the poet’s father, Melvin Moton Nelson, one of the first Tuskegee airmen, is piloting a p-40 airplane ”high as a Negro has ever been.” The book ends with the final image of airman Nelson doing a “sky-roaring victory roll.”

Carver earned over a dozen accolades and awards including the 2001 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, a 2002 Newberry Medal Honor Award, and a 2002 Coretta Scott King Honor Award. Though this was Nelson’s first book for young adults, she was already an accomplished poet with several full-length poetry collections, chap books, and translations. Since the publication of Carver she has written many more books for young people. You can read about her work at

Carver: A Life in Poems written by Marilyn Nelson. Published by Front Street, Asheville, NC, 2001. ISBN: 1-886910-53-7


Cheli Mennella

Cheli has been involved with creative arts and education for most of her life, and has taught many subjects from art and books to yoga and zoology. But she has a special fondness for kid’s books, and has worked in the field for more than 20 years. She is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Valley Kids and teaches a course for adults in “Writing for Children.” She writes from Colrain, where she lives with her musician-husband, three children, and shelves full of kid’s books.

26 Community Highlights: Glass Blowing to Handmade Valentines. Ice Harvest to Hobby Railroad.

February is Black History Month, also known as African-American History Month. From the archives, we have a few episode of the Hilltown Family Variety Show that would make excellent listening anytime, including the Underground Railroad Episode, Martin Luther King, Jr. Episode and Black History Month Episode— great shows for introducing American history and heroes to younger children through song and story. (Photo credit: Sienna Wildfield) 

Spelling Bee to Cosmology.  Glass Blowing to Handmade Valentines. Ice Harvest to Hobby Railroad. African-American History Month to Groundhogs Day… These are just a few of the learning highlights we’re featuring this week.  Get out into your community and learn while you play! And be sure to check our list of supporting book titles to supplement the learning on the different topics highlighted each week. Purchase them for your family library, or check them out from the public library!

Animals & Nature MYO Valentines
Black History Month
HistoryMusic & Art
Science & SpellingParents’ Night Out


Saturday, February 2nd is Groundhog Day! Families with young children can celebrate in the morning at the Great Falls Discovery Center in Turners Falls by learning about the winter habits of the shadow-searching creatures, and make a guess about whether or not winter will last for six more weeks

Learn about raptors at the Greenfield Center School on Sunday afternoon, February 3rd at their annual free Birds of Prey Open House with Tom Ricardi, Raptor Rehabilitator. Bird-related activities and projects, like owl pellet dissecting, will be lead by Center School teachers.

In Williamstown in the afternoon on Sunday, explore Field Farm for their free Winter Wildlife Day at Williamstown Rural Lands Foundation. Dress warmly to trek around the farm, searching for signs of wildlife and learning about how the many creatures who call the farmlands home survive during the winter months. Bring snowshoes or skis if you wish. Warm up after your adventure by toasting marshmallows over a campfire! 4

In the morning on Wednesday, February 7th in Williamsburg, start out your day with some fresh air with a free guided hike at Petticoat Hill with the Trustees of Reservations. The theme of the hike is edible plant identification, and the hike will stop a few times along the way for observations. Bring a field guide and a camera if you want.


Did you sign up for the Hilltown Families 5th annual Handmade Valentine Swap? Whether you did or not, making handmade valentines is a great way to push against the commercialization of yet another holiday, while being creative with your family and friends. There are a few opportunities to get out in your community to make valentines with others this weekend!

On Saturday morning, February 2nd, sign up to take part in the Eric Carle Museum’s Valentine-making party, which will take place in the museum’s art studio in Amherst or make your own valentines at the Mason Library in Great Barrington. In the afternoon on Saturday, families can also make their own handmade valentines at Art Party in Easthampton. If you can’t make any of those, on Sunday evening, February 3rd, kids ages 8-14 can learn basic drawing and print-making techniques with local artists at the Shutesburny Town Hall to use to create unique and beautiful handmade valentines.


There are also a few upcoming events happening at area museum that support the study of American history for older students. On Saturday morning, February 2nd the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield presents, “Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery,” the first in a two-part lecture series featuring author Barbara Krauthamer. The presentation will use historic images (including the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, Sojourner Truth, abolitionist conventions, and more) to examine what the freedom granted by the Emancipation Proclamation really looked like in the years just after its implementation. Older students can pair the event with studies of American history and civil rights – gaining a critical understanding of the implications of the historic proclamation can help students better understand the roots of race-related conflicts and inequalities. The second lecture will take place at the same time on Saturday, February 9th.

Learn about the history of slavery in the Connecticut River Valley on Thursday at noon, February 7th at the Springfield Museums’ Museums a la Carte lecture, featuring Amherst College Professor Robert Romer. During the 1700’s, it was commonplace for important, prominent people to own slaves – even ministers. Older students can learn how the practice of slave-holding affected the history of their community.

Learn about the powerful images that Norman Rockwell created during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s on Friday afternoon, February 8th in Stockbridge. Norman Rockwell Museum’s Curator of Education Tom Daly will share the stories behind the creation of such paintings as “The Problem We All Live With,” “Murder in Mississippi,” and “New Kids in the Neighborhood,” and Rockwell’s dedication to civil rights throughout his career.


The annual Amherst Railroad Society Railroad Hobby Show takes place this weekend (Feb. 2nd & 3rd) at the Big E in West Springfield, and contains everything related to rail travel, from real life railroad pieces to scale models and extensive hobby train set-ups. There will be displays from railroad historical societies, hobby builders, suppliers, and more – the event has something for everyone, whether you’re new to studying railroads and model trains of a seasoned enthusiast! Families can learn about the history of rail travel, and the numerous types of trains and their uses. Kids can also learn about the history of railroad use in the area, and will learn about how their community has changed over the years.

Attend an old-fashioned ice harvest at the Old Shop Pond at the Noble and Cooley Center for Historic Preservation in Granville on Saturday afternoon, February 2nd. Dennis Picard, director of Storrowton Village, will teach visitors about the historic practice of cutting ice from the pond to store for the year. The museum will show a short video about the history of ice harvesting in New England on loop, so that visitors throughout the day can learn even more about winter life in early New England.

Local author Sarah Kilborne will read from American Phoenix: The Remarkable Story of William Skinner, the Man Who Turned Disaster into Destiny. on Sunday afternoon, February 3rd. The book tells the story of Skinner’s life, and offers much information about the history of local silk production, and Haydenville’s recovery from the 1874 flood. Takes place at the Meekins Library in Williamsburg.

Families can do hands-on activities to learn about early New England life at Old Sturbridge Village! The village’s winter homeschool day takes place on on Friday, February 8th and will feature a variety of special workshops for all ages, in addition to the daily opportunities to explore the village, meet historical re-enactors, and learn all about 1830’s culture and practices. Some of the workshops offered today include learning to make a kitchen grater using tin-working techniques, open hearth cooking, and studying the language of fans and dance etiquette.


Celebrate the opening of glass artist Noah Rockland’s new glassblowing studio on Sunday, February 3rd in Montague. Families can learn about the art of glassblowing and watch demonstrations.

Smith College’s John M. Greene Hall will be filled with the sounds of a capella on Sunday afternoon, February 3rd in Northampton. The Northampton Arts Council’s annual Silver Chord Bowl will feature groups from Smith College, Northeastern, the University of Connecticut, Yale, Tufts, NYU, Berklee College of Music, and the Northamptones. Families will love the unique sound that each group has, and can learn to better understand a capella music by listening to a sampling of well-performed pieces.

The Mt. Holyoke College Music Department presents flutist Andrea Kapell Loewy, principal in the Acadania Symphony, in concert on Wednesday afternoon, February 6th in Hadley. Students with audience skills can learn about the unique sound of this beautiful wind instrument at this free performance.


Older students can learn about the science behind the human sense of smell at the OEB Science Cafe on Monday evening, February 4th in Hadley. This free event will take place at Esselon Cafe, and will be lead by UMass graduate student Tom Eiting will explain his work researching how nasal passages work and how smell is perceived in the brain.

Where did the universe come from? Learn about its origins on Tuesday evening, February 5th with cosmologist Lawrence Krauss at Williams College in Williamstown. Best for older students, the talk will cover recent developments in the field of particle physics, as well as ideas behind why there is something in the universe instead of nothing at this free talk.

The second annual Westfield city-wide spelling bee, Words With Friends, takes place on Thursday evening, February 7th. Students from all of the city’s fifth grade classrooms have participated in preliminary bees, and this final event will include two top spellers from each school! Takes place at Westfield State University.


Saturday night, February 2nd: Enjoy an evening of classic jazz at the Gateways Inn Restaurant in Lenox. The event is a fundraiser for the Great Barrington Rudolf Steiner School’s high school, and will feature local musicians.

Thursday, afternoon February 7th: Enjoy an indulgent night of wine and chocolate at the Springfield Museums! There will be wines to taste, chocolates to try, and delicious chocolate hors d’ouevres, as well as guest speaker Donald Williams, a professional wine buyer.

Friday, evening February 8th: New Orleans’ own legends the Preservation Hall Jazz Band are playing The Clark in Williamstown! Playing both Dixieland and traditional jazz, the group represents the historic Preservation Hall’s decades-long musical tradition.

List of Weekly Suggested EventsFind out about these events and over 100 other events & activities happening all next week in our List of Weekly Suggested Events. All of our listed events are “suggested.” Please take a moment to confirm that these events are happening as scheduled, along with time, place, age appropriateness and costs before heading out.


Musical Ways to Discover Heroes of African American History

Heroes of African American History Come to Life on Radio & DVD

Three ways to discover heroes of African American history!

Music is a terrific avenue for kids to discover African American heroes during Black History Month, with a couple of opportunities offered right here on Hilltown Families.

The Hilltown Family Variety Show Black History Month Episode showcased leading musicians who comprise an African American heritage this month, introducing listeners to many great musicians, including Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald. Listen to the podcast here.

♦ Check out this DVD released by Scholastic Storybook Treasures, Duke Ellington …and more stories to celebrate great figures in African American history, a historic and musical collection of four stories adapted from best-selling picture books.  Stories featured include:

  • Duke Ellington (based on the story by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Bran Pinkney, narrated by Forest Whitaker). A most fitting tribute to a great man who proudly celebrated the history of African-Americans, from slavery to civil rights struggles.
  • Ellington Was Not a Street (based on the story by Ntozake Shange, illustrated by Kadir Nelson, narrated by Phylicia Rashad). A poetic tribute about growing up amidst many of the great figures in African American History.
  • Ella Fitzgerald: The Tale of Vocal Virtuosa (based on the story Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Brian Pinkney, narrated by Billy Dee Williams). The dramatic story of how Ella got her sound, on the way to a most remarkable and inspiring career.
  • John Henry (based on the story by Julius Lester, illustrated by Brian Pinkney, narrated by Samuel L. Jackson). Based on the famous African-American folk ballad, this story tells of the legendary contest between a spirited man with a hammer and a steam drill.

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