Courage in Many Forms: The Many Faces of Michael
By Alice Dussart
After eight Michaelmas seasons, our beloved dragon had begun to falter and crumble. During the course of one of the most courage-testing school years, many of us have ever experienced, all talk of dragons and their portents was not a topic that leapt to the forefront of the faculty meetings.
Despite the uncertainty of the school year, there was still hope that we would once again be able to gather as a community to honor the seasons and to celebrate each other more frequently in the following school year.
Summer came and among the blooms, an idea was blossoming in my heart about the meaning of our festivals. How does our current time and place on the Earth need to play a larger role in those festivals? If we are to deeply honor the land beneath our feet and to celebrate our human experiences and heal together, perhaps our festival could afford to be reexamined. Does a traditional Michaelmas still strengthen the souls of today’s children? Does our earth and community need more than the meteoric fortifying of the season?
Our school, Juniper Ridge Community School, is a Waldorf-inspired public charter school. It sits on what was traditionally Ute land in a high desert valley in western Colorado. Our eastern landscape is dominated by the Grand Mesa which is one of the world’s largest flat-topped mountains. Etched onto the side of the western slope just below the rim is what appears to be the image of the famed Thunderbird.
Although the image is a naturally occurring formation, children in this valley have heard the legends surrounding the Thunderbird which paints the creature as either a terrifying being that will snatch children from their families or a more compassionate protector of humanity. I began to research to see if one of its legends would be an appropriate archetype for our school to bring forth for our autumn festival.
The indigenous people of this valley are the Utes and they were driven out by white settlers to reservations across different regions of the Southwest. I began my search by reaching out to the different reservations’ tribal offices, cultural centers, and even the history department at Utah State University. All the folks I spoke with were incredibly supportive of the impulse to bring a Thunderbird story to our community but, unfortunately, all our efforts came up empty.
It was time to cast our nets wider. As the image of the Thunderbird is ubiquitous across North and South America, it wasn’t too difficult to find stories. Finding a story that would carry the archetypal impulses of the Michaelmas season was an easy task as well. In many indigenous cultures, the Thunderbird represents our highest spiritual selves, a protector, and benevolence.
The story that I found that most resonated with the desired alignment was discovered in a children’s book entitled Brave Wolf and the Thunderbird. This story was told to the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institute by Joe Medicine Crow (1913-2016). Mr. Medicine Crow was a famed writer, historian, and war chief from the Crow Nation.
I lucked out by calling The Center Pole, a Crow cultural center that operates on the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana. Over the phone, I was connected with founder Peggy White well-known Buffalo, who, as chance would have it, was cousins with Joe Medicine Crow. Peggy offered to speak with Joe’s son. However, he was away at the time.
Peggy provided amazing consultation, asked keen and pertinent questions which helped immensely in determining that their story would be stewarded and treated with the utmost respect, and gave us her blessing to proceed. One bit of caution I was given was to not stray from the story as it was written, as this would be disrespectful to its teller and to not gain profit from its retelling.
I presented the idea to our pedagogical council for a deep discussion and consideration, and then to the full staff where it was received well. There was some confusion as to which songs and/or verses to bring to our new pageant, but our staff eagerly came to the task.
Working in our school’s great hall, the staff set to work building enormous Thunderbird puppets, five of them! Each puppet would need five students to operate which would task half of our eighth grade class. The other half would be erecting a large rainbow or providing the crashing sounds of the Thunderbirds. Then, as the puppets began to take form, the roles of the other grades and their unique offerings to the event began to take shape as well.
In the story Brave Wolf, the main character, recounts to his people (7th grade), upon returning from a long absence, all that had happened to them while away on a hunting trip. They begin by telling of how the great Thunderbirds had scooped down from the sky and carried them off to their nest. At the nest resided the Thunderbird nestlings (1st grade), who needed protection from a horned serpent (2nd grade). With the help of the elements of the earth, the plants, and the animals (3rd-6th grade), Brave Wolf is able to outwit and cast the serpent back down into its home. The Thunderbird had called upon a human to rise to their highest selves in order to tame the serpent. Cunning, courage, and skill were needed from Brave Wolf and they rose to the call.
Class teachers began to incorporate the new story into their classrooms and the campus began to buzz with excitement. Festival day arrived and the children, dressed in their designated colors, eagerly gathered in their classrooms, and the families made their way to the field to take their seats. Once the children took their place, the first clash of the giant Thunderbirds was heard and our narrator began to tell our tale…
If Waldorf education is going to progress into the next era we must meet today’s children where they are and in a way that represents both their own diversity and the diversity of the lands where our schools have rooted themselves.
Our common archetypes come in a myriad of colors, shapes, sizes, and stories and one of the most pressing aspects of the art of teaching is to have the courage to seek out and call upon them to nurture the souls of today’s children and to heal the wounds of our collective pasts.
Alice Dussart: I am a 6th generation resident of the Western Slope and a devoted mama to my 15-year-old son, Milo. Juniper Ridge Community School has been my professional home since its founding. I received my Waldorf Certification and a Master degree in Waldorf Elementary Education from the Rudolf Steiner College in Fair Oaks, CA.
Juniper Ridge Community School opened its doors in 2013 in borrowed space at a local church complex. We have since opened a new campus on nearly 30 hidden acres in the heart of Grand Junction, Colorado. We are a K-8 public Waldorf charter school.