Magazine Feature

From Cradleboard to Motherboard

Buffy Sainte-Marie's interactive multimedia curriculum transforms Native American studies

With a few clicks of the mouse, a middle school student "plays" Native American drums, mouthbow, flute, rattle and fiddle. Nearby, a classmate views computer images of wickiups, igloos, hogans and plank houses. Young learners exploring ancient traditions on CD-roms are nothing new in today's wired classrooms, but this particular scenario involves a notable twist: The lessons at hand focus not simply on Indian music but on wavelength, frequency and amplitude; not just on the diversity of Native American lodgings but on the innovative techniques behind their construction. Although "science" and "Native American" aren't an obvious match to many educators, in this classroom and many others across the country, the two are a perfect fit.

Award-winning songwriter and activist Buffy Sainte-Marie is bringing both Native studies and traditional curriculum content alive with "Science: Through Native American Eyes," an interactive, multimedia adventure that has garnered praise from students and teachers alike, from the middle grades to adult education. The 650-megabyte CD is an integral tool in the science component of Sainte-Marie's Cradleboard Teaching Project (the name refers to a flexible, protective frame used in various North American Indian tribes to carry infants). Marrying two distinct "ways of knowing" -- Native American tradition and high-tech innovation -- Cradleboard provides a new vehicle for exploring the "core curriculum," as defined by National Content Standards in science, geography, social studies, history and music.

The magic of the project, says Sainte-Marie, derives from the way it presents "mainstream" subjects through the eyes of a marginalized people. "We try to make the curriculum meaningful by linking accurate information to the common sense involved in human genius."


A Devotion to Culture and Technology

"As an artist, I'm very curious," notes Sainte-Marie, and when you look at her eyes, luminous in the dark frame of her hair, you know that what she says is coming from a place fired by more than an academic interest. "I use whatever tools are available to my imagination. But I have the head and heart of a teacher. I'm very interested in culture and in the self-esteem and self-awareness of all children."

When she is not teaching as an adjunct professor in Canada and Washington state or fulfilling her artist-in-residency in New Mexico, Sainte-Marie lives in Hawaii. Born on the Piapot (Cree) Reserve in Saskatchewan's QuíAppelle Valley, she was later adopted and raised in non-Indian communities in Maine and Massachusetts. "In my late teens I had gotten a scholarship to study religion in the arts in India, but then I discovered I could sing … and never did take that scholarship. I was lucky, though -- show business bought me airline tickets to see the world."

Sainte-Marie's music career dates back to the 1960s and early '70s when her songs helped fuel the peace movement during the Vietnam War ("Universal Soldier" became a sort of anti-war anthem) and were recorded by a diverse array of artists such as Janis Joplin, Elvis Presley, Barbra Streisand, the Boston Pops Orchestra and, later, Tracy Chapman. However, many know her best for her Academy Award-winning song "Up Where We Belong," which was co-written by Will Jennings and Jack Nitzsche and recorded by Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes for the soundtrack of the 1982 movie "An Officer and a Gentleman."

Ultimately, Sainte-Marie's insatiable curiosity led her beyond popular music to attain degrees in Eastern philosophy and education, as well as a doctorate in fine arts from the University of Massachusetts. In the late 1970s, she won a new generation of admirers with her five-year stint on "Sesame Street," where she and her son, Dakota Wolfchild Starblanket, taught young viewers that "Indians still exist."

Sainte-Marie's fascination with technology spans her entire career. In the late 1960s she used a Buchla synthesizer to pioneer an all-electronic vocal album. The '70s and early '80s found her using computers to record music and score movies. In 1984, she purchased her first computer -- a 128k Macintosh, "which I upgraded to 512k the minute it became possible," she adds. She began experimenting with a variety of paint packages to explore the possibilities of digital art and, by the early '90s, Sainte-Marie was venturing into online communication and innovative digital music recordings.

She soon recognized that the limitless possibilities of technology in creating art could also be applied to education -- specifically her quest to help foster in all children an appreciation for Native American culture.

Officially founded in 1996, the Cradleboard Project traces its informal origins to an encounter Sainte-Marie had years earlier with her son's 5th grade teacher, who requested Sainte-Marie's help in developing instructional materials that could present American Indians more accurately. After writing new units that were incorporated into the curriculum, Sainte-Marie turned to technology to take the project to another level.

"I thought it would be interesting to connect a First Nations school in Canada with my son's Island School in Hawaii," she says. Exchanging letters and "goody boxes" filled with local information, as well as collaborating on Internet activities, helped the students learn more about their own cultures in the process of instructing their peers.


Promoting Interest, Dispelling Myths

What began as an enrichment and exchange program has now broadened into a well-organized, multifaceted project. Cradleboard's core curriculum is designed to address generic matters that affect all Native peoples, including things that Indians of any nation have in common, such as special relationships with governments and advances in medicine, agriculture and science. Top educators, including scholars from the 33 tribal colleges, have contributed material to the curriculum. Each unit -- at elementary, middle and high school levels -- is supplemented by maps, videos, audio tapes, charts, tests, lesson plans, Web tours, live and interactive computer activities -- all supported by Native American points of view.

Cradleboard delivers these materials to the Native American participating classes and, in exchange, receives the tribe-specific materials generated by Native American educators after they have been copyrighted. The mainstream partnering schools pay a subscription fee that enables them to receive from Cradleboard the core curriculum, as well as the tribe-specific curriculum of their partner grade.

Interaction between Native and non-Native students is crucial to the program. Melissa Shein, a 4th grade teacher in Philadelphia, observes, "Stereotyping is hard to break. Unfortunately, many of our students have a Disney sense of reality. A project like Cradleboard takes something abstract and makes it concrete." Teacher Pamela Livingston adds, "Our kids are interacting in chats, live video conferences, through e-mail and via regular mail with children they would never encounter otherwise, while learning authentic history, past and present."

Youngsters from the participating classes (which numbered 18 as the current school year began) partner as study buddies and research associates to master National Content Standards. Each class agrees to a minimum of eight hours of on-line interaction, and each participates in a series of self-esteem-building activities and a preliminary 20 Statements/20 Questions exercise that allows both Native and mainstream classes to put their self-perceptions and queries up front.

For example, one class of 3rd graders in Washington state included the following among its introductory "20 Statements": We live on the Quinault Reservation by the Pacific Ocean. In our woods we have bear, elk, deer, coyote, bobcats, cougars and many other small animals. Fifty percent of our population is under 18. Our reservation borders on the Olympic Rain Forest.

Their partner class of non-Native children in New York asked: Do you hunt with a bow and arrow? Does your class have spelling tests? Do any of your ceremonies let you dance around a fire? Do you have any Native American toys?

"We encourage non-Indian students and teachers not to be shy," explains Sainte-Marie, "but to ask anything they really want to know about Native American people and culture. That's how we can overcome ignorance together."

Cradleboard plans to produce an additional 14 core curriculum CD-roms after "Science: Through Native American Eyes." Although future components will focus on a variety of subjects, they will all undoubtedly share a commitment to making Native American culture more visible in classrooms everywhere.

"People suffer from being misperceived all their lives because of the lack of accuracy about Indians in the mainstream," says Sainte-Marie. "We see in our community the effects of the absence of a strong self-concept and the erroneous perceptions of others. But our kids -- all kids -- have a lot to say."

To learn more about the Cradleboard Teaching Project or to order the CD-rom "Science: Through Native American Eyes" ($325), check the Web site at or contact them at 1191 Kuhio Highway, Kapaa, HI 96746; phone: (808) 822-3111, fax: (808) 823-0111.