November is American Indian Heritage Month, and although Dennis Swiftdeer-Paige is of Russian extraction, he feels a special link with native culture.
“This path I’ve taken gives a feeling about living on this earth and understanding the relationship with nature,” he said. “It brings you to a different level as far as how you relate to the world.”
Swiftdeer-Paige, a naturalist and ecology educator, brings his Journey from the Heart program to the Forest Park Public library on Saturday, Nov. 10 from 2-3 p.m.
The interactive performance includes dancing, items and music from Native-American culture and storytelling.
“It’s a family-oriented event that uses humor, wisdom, drama and theater to look at our values and ourselves so we live more in balance with the earth,” Swiftdeer-Paige said.
The Forest Park Public Library has a special link to local Native-American history in the several display cases of tools, jewelry and trade items uncovered during the excavation of what is now Forest Home Cemetery. Some of the tools are 5,000 years old.
Pre-European Forest Park was a center of Native-American life for the Potawatomi Indians up until the mid 1830s when their land was given away to European-derived settlers. Native grave sites were constructed along the Des Plaines River because the land was slightly elevated. The area’s first European-derived settler, Leon Bourassa, a French-Indian fur trader, received an 1839 land grant from President Van Buren for land abutting the river. His Potawatomi wife remained behind when the rest of the tribe was moved west of the Mississippi.
Swiftdeer-Paige said his love of nature was nurtured growing up in Maywood, where fishing in Salt Creek was a bike ride away. He also came to Forest Park, especially to the cemeteries, where he and friends would spook themselves.
He picked his native name “Swiftdeer” as an adult, but he remembers bonding with an orphaned fawn during a summer vacation in Wisconsin as a young child.
“I was a hyperactive kid,” he said. “That experience as a fast-running kid, hyperactive, always moving around,” helped him pick the name. He was also drawn to Native-American culture.
“When I was a little kid in Wisconsin Dells, there was a Pow Wow demonstration and they were doing an Eagle dance,” Swiftdeer-Paige said. “I just jumped into the field and joined the dance. My parents tried to get me out, but the elders said, don’t disturb the kid, the spirit’s moving him.
“I realized I was on some kind of journey.”
Swiftdeer-Paige performs his naturalist “edutainment” shows at Illinois libraries, schools, nature centers and museums. He has two master’s degrees, one in environmental education from the National Audubon Society Expedition Institute through Lesley University (Cambridge, Mass.) and the other in social studies from Northwestern University (Evanston). He joined the Peace Corps in 1971, was sent to Africa and taught math, social studies and English in Liberia. He wrote an award-winning column, “Green Light: Living with Nature,” in the Daily Herald for four years.
Swiftdeer-Paige thinks energetic children have fewer outlets and places to run today. He agrees with author Richard Louv, who wrote Last Child in the Woods, that children suffer from a “nature deficit complex” in our video game and indoor society.
“For young people in our lives, we have removed their experience with nature.”
Paige cites a Kaiser Family Foundation study showing that the average child spends 4.5 hours outside during the week. “And that’s not walking in the natural world. That’s on the playground,” Swiftdeer-Paige said. He worries that nature is abstract to children and that will affect their stewardship of the earth as they grow older. “Affinity has to be based on experience,” he said.
“Hearing my stories helps children – and adults – learn stories about nature and incorporate them in their journey,” he said.
“Then they begin to feed on that energy all around them in the world, the ant on the sidewalk, the snow falling on the grass. It’s the whole connection of signs that make up who we are.”