With help from camper Shawn Shepherd, Karen Roark demonstrates how to make soap ground from Yucca plant and water. (Lee Talbert/Johnson City Press)
While nature camps generally include hikes, plant identification and survival techniques, one themed nature camp by Johnson City Parks and Recreation this week has gone a bit off the trail, as campers explore Native American culture and traditions.
The weeklong camp, Walk Softly Native American Camp, was put together by Johnson City Park Naturalist Coordinator Connie Deegan, who said the camp was a new addition to the nature camps.
“I wanted to have a camp that, to my knowledge, had never been done before. I know it hasn’t been done with Parks and Rec,” Deegan said. “I am friends with a couple of people who are Native American and I thought that would be an incredible theme, because as a naturalist ... it’s just an obvious tie in. This is a Native American camp. There’s at least one educational component per day, very often two.”
She said campers, ranging from 7 to 14 years old, have a list of activities planned for the week, including tree identification relays, hikes, lakefront games, ancient fishing methods and various Native American speakers.
Tuesday morning’s speaker, Karen Roark with Remnant Yuchi Nation, was ready to go at 11 with a table of Native American tools and a variety of plants, as campers filed into bench seating in front of the Robert Young Cabin at Winged Deer Park.
Dressed in Native American regalia, Roark explained the ancient Indian techniques of soap making, the plants they used for medicine and the importance of plant and animal preservation.
Roark said afterward that her specialty was in the earth and the plants.
“I showed them some of the plants that are native to the Appalachian mountains. It’s important to know that for survival purposes, whether it’s medicine plants, edible plants or technical plants,” she said.
“Since so much native Indian history is not written down, the way to learn it is to pass it to the next generation. That to me is very important, because someday they’re going to take my place and they need to know these plants. You never know when you might be out hiking and need something to stop bleeding or something to quench your thirst.”
Roark said speaking to the group of kids Tuesday was fun because kids are “like sponges. They absorb it. They remember it and ... it’s a way to pass it on. If it’s 1 out of 20 that remembers any one plant today, they’ll tell their grandkids about it. That’s the way we keep the native Indian heritage moving.”
Dante LeNormand, 10, said he was enjoying the camp so far and said he enjoyed the part of Roark’s discussion about Indians using bamboo to make chairs.
“I thought they didn’t have chairs. I thought they’d sit on the ground every day,” LeNormand said. “She was showing us about the plants that they used to heal people when they didn’t have things. They didn’t have the stuff we use today.”
Deegan said the camp runs from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. each day and will conclude Friday.
She said she hopes the camp can be a gateway for the younger generation, as well as older generations, to get exposed to the outdoors, as well as learn to take care of it.
“I think people are beginning to get a sense, regardless of where they live or what they do for a living, that we need to take care of what we have and if we don’t get our act together pretty soon, then we will have blown it in immeasurable ways,” Deegan said.
“When we were little kids, we went outside and we played around and we just made observations, simply because we were outside. People are kind of losing a grip (on the outdoors) and I think it’s important for people to realize, really, where everything comes back to, regardless of what you do.”