Friday, April 29, 2011

Learning Homestead Style

Saturday, I picked up my cell phone, pressed 8, then send expecting my little sister to pick up. The 5 year old voice of my niece surprised me at first, but I guess it shouldn’t have because I often get calls from my sister asking me to talk to either my niece or nephew because they won’t give up the other phone and I’m to provide the distraction. I asked Cadence, my niece, what she was doing to which she replied that she was playing a game on mommy’s phone and it rang so she answered it. After a brief conversation about the game and school I got to talk to my sister.

My niece is a digital native, meaning she’s grown up with technology all her life. She can answer the phone, play games and probably take pictures with her mom’s camera phone. My youngest sister is also a digital native so she snaps first day of school pictures with her camera phone, posts them to Facebook and texts them to the family before they even walk through the school doors. Technology is amazing!

Although we don’t use camera phones, Homestead National Monument of America uses technology to spread the homesteading story through its distance learning technology. Homestead uses distance learning or you may know it as video conferencing, to teach free programs to kids from coast to coast, literally. We have connected with schools from California to New York and from Minnesota to Texas and all points in between. We teach the kids about many different aspects of the homesteading story from the American Indian uses to the buffalo to life in a cabin and more.

It’s amazing to talk to kids across Nebraska and the United States. They have such energy and I am always surprised at how much they know and their answers to my questions. But the key to technology (other than having it work), is to tell them how long it would take them to get to Homestead the old fashioned way, on a school bus. This helps them realize how great technology is. Sometimes a school bus ride to Homestead is only a couple hours away, but other times it could take a couple of days. For those schools located far away we may never have had a chance to introduce our park to them. I wonder how many parents have casually asked their child what they did in school today to have them answer, “I went to Nebraska!” I would love to see their faces. I should start asking the kids to take pictures for me.

by Tina Miller
Education Coordinator
Homestead National Monument of America

Friday, April 22, 2011

Homesteader: Oscar Micheaux

Oscar Micheaux is a well known historical figure in the world of cinema. He was the first African American to produce and direct a feature length film. The title of that film was The Homesteader and it was released in theaters in 1919. Coincidentally, this was the first feature film to have homestead as the primary theme. I initially began to research the film out of curiosity in that it was about the Homestead Act. It quickly became apparent that the man who directed the film, Oscar Micheaux, the driving force behind this production, had based the picture on his own life experiences.

Oscar Micheaux came from humble southern Illinois beginnings. Both his parents were children of slaves and they were trying to navigate what it meant to be African American in the post-Civil War United States. Oscar’s mother believed deeply in education and was committed to affording her children the opportunity to receive formal schooling. It was in these early years that Oscar slowly became aware of what it was like to be black in the late 19th century. He recalls that southern Illinois had a high population of former slave catchers, a profession popular in northern states that bordered the Mason Dixon Line. Oscar, at first, was labeled a trouble maker; “a negro with worldly ideas.” This label often isolated him from his peers, but it motivated him to prove the status quo wrong and rise above what society seemed to have predetermined for him. At this time, Oscar also began to understand the delicate nature of race relations, lessons that would serve him well in the future.

In his teens Oscar moved to Chicago to be with his brother. He began working a laborious job in the infamous stockyards; however, finding this work particularly gruesome, he left the stockyards to open his own shoeshine stand. Here he began to talk with his white patrons, and being an astute student of human behavior, started learning about white society. He began to develop an interest in the untamed West many of his white customers talked about. The fascination led Oscar to a job as a Pullman Porter. The Pullman Porter’s job was to ensure that train travelers were accommodated and that all of their needs were met when they were riding the rails to their destinations. As a Porter, Oscar would spend days getting to know the white travelers that he was assigned to, many of which were heading to the western United States to acquire free land from the government through a program called the Homestead Act.

Oscar’s interest in the West drew him to Gregory County in southern South Dakota. Here Oscar found a piece of ground and, with little farming experience, began the arduous task of plowing the ground. He remembers his (all white) neighbors standing about watching and laughing as his plow “hopped, skipped, and jumped all the way across the prairie.” The ridicule burned like a fuel in Oscar who was determined to overcome his inexperience and prove that he could succeed. Oscar was in his field rain or shine, yielding only to frozen ground, plowing up 120 acres in his first year. His determination soon turned his neighbors laughter to a “grudging respect, then to acceptance, and finally to admiration, when they realized that he had broken many more acres of prairie than most of them.”

This admiration left Oscar feeling tentatively welcome in an area where he was the lone African American. Being the lone African American also isolated him. Knowing the delicate nature of race relations, Oscar new that a romantic relationship with a white woman would not be tolerated, even though Oscar had strong feelings for a local white woman and those feelings appear to have been reciprocated by the woman, Oscar would not cross those boundaries. This was an issue that Oscar would revisit many times in his future films.

Oscar set to the arduous task of improving his claim. He successfully proved up his homestead just as the region entered a severe drought. Oscar was forced to try and make ends meet by hiring himself to other farmers in the region, but other farmers were suffering and work was inconsistent. He began writing down his experiences as a homesteader as a way to cope with the hardships he was enduring. His writings were a mix of fiction and biography meant to tell his story of struggle with, and conquest of, the land. He soon had created a full length book that he appropriately titled The Conquest. He began traveling throughout the region selling the book to his friends and neighbors. This new enterprise soon led to a second novel titled The Homesteader. His self published novels were moderately successful, but more importantly they caught the attention of a production company that wanted to turn them into a movie.

Oscar attended a meeting in Lincoln, Nebraska to listen to the production company’s offer to make the movie. He was extremely interested in the idea and said that he would allow the company to make the movie, but he wanted to direct the film. The production company refused and pulled out of the deal, but the seed had been planted in Oscar’s mind and he became determined to self-produce and direct the film, and that is exactly what he did. In doing so, Oscar Micheaux became the first African American to produce and direct a feature length film, and he called it The Homesteader. Unfortunately, there are no surviving copies of the film The Homesteader, which is a great lost to both the world of history and cinema.

The African American homesteading experience is still, in large part, lacking in that scholarship, outside of the Kansas Exodusters, but it has been sporadic at best. Oscar Micheaux’s novels offer an invaluable glimpse into the African American experience in early 20th century South Dakota, but it also stands as a reminder to how little information exists on African American homesteaders.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The land of homestead dreams…

The land to be discovered by an accident, the land to be settled by strangers, the land to be given for people…

By Parviz Jamalov, foreign exchange student from Tajikistan
Southeast Community College

Once knowing nothing about Nebraska, I have inherited the passion of “Go Big Red” fever and fell in love with hospitability shown by the people of the “Cornhusker State.” But while living in Nebraska I was always wondering about the pride which overflows the spirits of Nebraska people. What is the Homestead Act? How did the people of different ancestries come upon the decision to live in Nebraska? Where are Native Americans?

Parviz Jamalov at the wall of states

These are just some of the many questions which were constantly crossing my mind. As a foreign exchange student who had never before experienced the American culture and traditions firsthand, I considered the Homestead Act as an essential tool for broadening my horizons about American history and culture.

And finally, when the snowy days were marching through Beatrice the splendid chance of learning more about Nebraska was given to me. Seems like even severe and almighty weather showed mercy to me that day as the tender rays of sun were charmingly reflecting from snow which covered the ground like a big white fluffy blanket. While sitting in the car on my way to the Homestead National Monument I felt how my knees were quaking because of accumulating excitement and anticipation.

The Education Center was our first destination. Although much time has passed since that day there is one scene which still stays in my mind. Remember The Fallen wall left a huge emotional impact in my heart. The pictures of young soldiers whose lives were cut too early evoked sadness in my soul. But I believe that glory and honor they deserved will elevate their names to eternity.
After visiting the Education Center, we headed to the Heritage Center. Truly, I was conquered by it from first sight. The unique shape of the building captured my attention and I couldn’t wait to get inside. Now I was there, in the place of knowledge, history and heritage.

First of all we watched the movie about the Homestead Act. I was told that this movie is triumphant and seized an Award. And as I proceeded watching it, I was convinced in the genuine high quality of this movie. Not only did it become a perfect study tool for me but also it gave a real vigorous picture of the American history. Accompanied by tremendous visual and sound effects the movie maintains a dramatic and intense atmosphere though it solely reflects true historical events. Now the history of the Homestead Act was clear for me.

But how did the first homesteaders live? What farming techniques did they use while conquering severe nature? Answers for these and many other questions were revealed in the Museum of the Heritage Center.

First of all, I could read the actual Homestead Act signed by Abraham Lincoln. Then the history began to show its detail as I was watching many tools, constructions, and inventions which were used by the Homesteaders. Admirably, many of them staggered my mind and persuaded me that human abilities are truly unlimited.

The most exciting part of the exhibition was the reconstruction of the actual homestead house[Palmer-Epard Cabin]. When I stepped inside it I thought I felt the smell of history because the interior appearance of the house was just like the ones which I saw in the movie or on the pictures. For a moment I believed that I was in the past. The house looked so humble and orderly that I thought that its residents have just left and will be back soon.

Another remarkable recollection which dwells in my mind was the sample of school tools used by the students of homestead days and nowadays students. It was a splendid comparison of two different centuries that gave me another chance to understand the lifestyle of the Homesteaders. Unfortunately due to weather conditions I couldn’t walk to the actual Homestead land, however, I sincerely hope to visit the Homestead National Monument of America again during the spring.

So what did the visit to the Homestead Monument give me? What did I learn when I spent some time there? The answer is obvious – I was astounded by the People of America again. Once being nothing but the land of wind and sand, today the area which was given to homesteaders thrives providing food and water for a whole nation. Whereas in my county where 67% of the population is involved in agriculture, the abundant fertile land was passed to us by our predecessors, who had been resiliently working for many centuries. The agriculture and farming came to Central Asia in during the Stone Age and had been gradually developing raising the exuberance and bountifulness of arable lands. Those lands were feeding the various empires including Macedonian, Mongolian, Turk and Russian ones.

But the land which was accidentally discovered by Christopher Columbus was pristine and untouched and saw nothing but periodical movements of Indian tribes. This land became the promise of paradise for thousands of people from different continents who were in desperate search for better life. Forced by economic instability and dreadful wars, the people came to the New World placing their lives for the sake of hope. Once they got official permission, the homesteaders faced the greatest challenge – the challenge of survival. The land which seemed a dream before greeted them with a harsh severity. Tornadoes, storms, famine and hordes of grasshoppers couldn’t break the soul of the people who persistently fought for the bright future. And today this land has become the most powerful and prosperous in the world.

It was the land of dream…The dream which became reality…The dream which elevated the nation…The dream which is called America.

Friday, April 8, 2011

A Day in the Life of a Ranger

Visitors often ask me about my work experiences as a park ranger, what other parks I have worked at, or how I became a park ranger when they visit the monument or when I visit a classroom. I have had quite an exciting career as a park ranger so far, having worked at five other National Park Service sites besides Homestead, doing things like narrating day-long boat tours to tidewater glaciers at Kenai Fjords National Park, leading canoe trips in the mangroves of Everglades National Park, and presenting campfire programs about the recovery of the peregrine falcon at Shenandoah National Park.

by Allison La Duke

There’s something unique and special, though, about my job at Homestead National Monument of America. For one, I get to wear many different “hats”, not just a park ranger hat, but also a Artist-in-Residence program coordinator hat, a Webmaster hat, a special events planner hat, a living history bonnet , and others. Secondly, in the two years I have worked at Homestead, I have had the great opportunity to recognize and get to know our regular visitors and dedicated volunteers. By working at one National Park Service site for more than a season, I have become part of the community and learned the faces and names of the people who know this land very well.

Most importantly, there’s something so rewarding about having a good conversation with a visitor who is genuinely interested in the impact the Homestead Act had on our country and the world. Yesterday I had such a conversation with a visitor. When he first arrived, he joked with me about how to get the donation box open so he could take the money home with him. But then he asked me a more serious question about the significance of this place, why are we here. Our conversation was one that went beyond the typical questions of “where’s the bathroom?” and “what should we do here?” Instead, we talked about Abraham Lincoln and his legacy; we talked about the beauty of the prairie; we talked about how the Homestead Act changed people’s lives in big ways. For some people this was a fresh start for a new life, but for the American Indians, it was a devastating, and many people don’t even realize that it occurred. I could tell he was engaged and interested in our conversation because he stopped to think while we were talking and would say, wow, I hadn’t thought about it that way before.

At the end of his visit, he thanked me for what we do here, for our conversation and for the insight I provided. I also thanked him, because those conversations aren’t very common. This type of conversation is what reminds me of why I wanted to become a park ranger. Thank you yesterday’s visitor from Colorado. You made my day.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Confirmed: Who Pooped in the Park!

Mammals unlike birds are usually very secretive and hard to see when visiting Homestead National Monument of America. Often we see the signs of the animals that are here, burrows dug by ground hogs, trees chewed on by beavers, tracks from raccoons and deer by the creek, but rarely do we see these animals, let alone get pictures of them. That is why I was very excited when Homestead was given the opportunity to borrow a trail camera from the Regional NPS Wildlife Specialist. The camera is motion activated and takes 10 pictures, in less than 10 seconds each time it sees movement.

By Jesse Bolli, Resource Management Specialist

The first month that we had the camera we had it “watching” the carcasses of deer that the maintenance employees had removed from the highway. In that location we were able to observe several animals feeding on the carcass and a few that were just passing by. Species observed included: red-tailed hawks, crows, raccoons, an opossum, coyotes, deer, wild turkeys, and a bobcat. The camera was then moved closer to the Education Center down by the campfire area. While the camera was there I did not get any photos where the animal could be identified. Several photos of an animal climbing over the camera were captured. With the camera in its current location which is near Cub Creek along a game trail several smaller mammals have been captured. Species captured at its current location include: raccoons, opossums, a skunk, deer, a cottontail rabbit, a squirrel, and a small rodent (mouse, shrew, or vole).

Some of the interesting things that have been observed by the camera include red-tailed hawks who are disagreeing on who should be allowed to feed on the carcass, images where more than one species can be seen, photos with a coyote and deer in the same frame, and another with coyote and turkeys in the same frame. The coyote did not seem interested in the turkeys and the turkeys did not seem concerned.

Another thing that has surprised me is the amount of time that the coyotes and raccoons will spend feeding on the carcass. One coyote spent from 9:56 a.m. to 11:35 a.m. feeding on the carcass. One thousand-three hundred-forty pictures were taken while the coyote was feeding. The coyote did appear to have mange as it did not have any hair on it tail. Still I found it interesting that a coyote would spend over an hour feeding in the daylight in one place.

For me the most exciting species captured by the camera is the bobcat. The series of photos of the bobcat shows it near the ribcage of the deer that it is feeding on, it then is gone in the next frame followed by a shot of the bobcat walking away 30 minutes later. Was the bobcat in the carcass for 30 minutes? The pictures don’t tell the entire story but they do make you wonder what it was doing.

As new images of different species are capture they will be added to our Facebook page. This technology has provided Homestead with valuable information about the mammals that are using the monument and has confirmed for us, as an earlier blog mentions, who pooped in the park!