Take pride in your heritage on Ute Heritage DayMar 23, 2021 09:34AM ● By Jan Weeks
Ginger DeCavitch was awarded the 2019 State Archaeologist’s Award by History Colorado Center for her development of an annual Rough Canyon Archaeology Education and Service Day.
Retired teacher Ginger DeCavitch engages kids with Native culture
Whenever Ginger DeCavitch, 70, told people she taught middle school science and social studies, comments ranged from “Oh, you poor thing!” to “You must have the patience of a saint.” But DeCavitch had another take on it: “I don’t teach middle school; I teach young people who are at a very important crossroads in their lives.”
She retired after 35 years of teaching, but continues to build on that legacy with the founding of Ute Heritage Day.
DeCavitch has a special place in her heart for all the students at Mt. Garfield Middle School, but particularly for Native Americans because she is Native Hawaiian.
“We share many common experiences, including losing our lands, languages, and customs. Native Hawaiians didn’t know it wasn’t okay to go topless!” she said.
Native Hawaiians lost their land in 1893 when U.S. troops overthrew Queen Lili‘uokalani at the urging of Sanford Ballard Dole of pineapple fame. Incidentally, pineapples are not native to the islands; Dole imported them from Mexico.
Having common backgrounds allowed DeCavitch to treat students from the Ute and Navajo tribes as equals by recognizing their tribal affiliation, inquiring about their families, asking if they participated in traditional dances as well as if they worked on the reservations.
“I hoped to set up a dialogue showing I respected their backgrounds and heritage,” she explained.
Once the ice was broken, the middle school kids were open and excited to share artifacts, music and other tribal material with the class. Giving the students opportunities to talk about their cultures, traditions and customs helped them gain an appreciation for their heritage. DeCavitch invited Native Hawaiian kids to come and teach her students about their culture and Hawaiian history.
“Both the visitors and middle school students gained so much confidence just by being recognized,” she said.
Preserving Native history
Her students’ educational opportunities weren’t limited to the classroom. In April 2017, DeCavitch took 30 students on a field trip to the Mica Mine area and they were shocked by what they found. Vandals used charcoal from campfires to scrawl their names and profanities on the walls of the canyon. Some had even incised graffiti into the stone with broken glass or other tools. The area was littered with broken beer bottles and trash. The students unanimously decided to help clean up the site, as well as the vandalism in Rough Canyon, where petroglyphs and rock art had been defaced.
Mt. Garfield Middle School eighth-grade students help clean graffiti and other vandalism at Rough Canyon in 2019.
The cleanup was so successful that in the spring of 2018, DeCavitch and fellow teacher Stephanie Bernstein selected another group of students to revisit the area. Betsy Chapoose, director of cultural rights and protection for the Ute Tribe, came on board and helped steer efforts in ways that preserved artifacts and were acceptable to the Bureau of Land Management and the Ute Tribal Council. Some things, such as cleaning up graffiti, have to be done by restorers approved by the tribe because of their cultural value.
Other groups such as Great Old Broads for Wilderness and the Colorado Canyons Association worked alongside the kids to block trails that vandals had made and to clean up the mess. Their efforts resulted in a restored historical site, as well as learning about the history and significance of petroglyphs.
Ute Heritage Day
Back at Mt. Garfield Middle School, the students’ enthusiasm for learning more about local Native American history and traditions led DeCavitch, now retired, to create Ute Heritage Day. The first celebration was held at the school in May 2019 and was limited to students. Tribal members from Fort Duchesne, Utah, demonstrated to students how to bead, make a petroglyph and throw a spear with an atlatl in this hands-on event. The kids also observed demonstrations of flint knapping and the bear dance, and learned about museum curation, ethnobotany and desert ecosystems. It wasn’t long before the students begged to allow their parents to come, too.
The second event was scheduled for spring of 2020, but was put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Students designed T-shirts, worked on PR and formed committees for the Ute Festival, but in December 2019 the school policies changed as flu closures hit and then COVID,” said DeCavitch. “We printed the kids’ T-shirts and delivered them in the spring with masks on. Such great kids were so disappointed.”
However, students, Uintah-Ouray tribal members and teachers look forward to celebrating the next Ute Heritage Day in spring 2022. In the meantime, the History Colorado Center in Denver added an exhibit of the project to its museum, which will be displayed for the next four years.
DeCavitch truly exemplifies the teaching spirit—guiding young people to find pride, responsibility and empathy as they learn required subjects. She’s one of those educators who will never truly retire, continuing to educate people of all ages and backgrounds as long as she’s able.