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Getting In Touch With History Reading Rare Documents Gives Teens A Rare Glimpse Into Past

Archivist David Kingma waited nervously among the rare books for the teenagers.

He had prepared five large tables for the students. At each chair, he had placed a folder containing a 100-yearold diary, or letters, or legal documents from one of five Jesuit missions in the Northwest.

Beside each folder he had placed a pencil and a stack of note cards; on top, a white glove.

He hoped the risk of allowing 29 teenagers to touch, read and possibly damage the unique documents would be worth the results he and North Central High teacher Paula Korus envisioned.

“I believe historians are formed early by these kinds of encounters,” said Kingma, who oversees the Jesuit collection at Gonzaga University’s Foley Library.

Having students work with original documents is among the recommendations included in national history standards published last fall by the National Center for History in the Schools at UCLA.

“One of the premises of the history standards is that students understand history and not simply be asked to memorize long lists of dates and facts that may not stay with them very long,” said Stuart Wolpert, a UCLA spokesman.

Korus, who has a master’s degree in history and eight years of teaching experience, wanted to give her honors freshmen a chance to work with original documents as they studied Washington state history.

On Friday, her students climbed to the third-floor archive, then gathered under a lightfilled dome to hear Kingma’s advice and cautions. He explained that note cards, pencils and gloves are standard equipment for research with primary documents.

He reminded them not to fold corners, underline, or lick their fingers to turn pages.

“When you put on the glove the temptation is to say, ‘I feel like Michael Jackson.’ But I want you to imagine you’re working on your PhD.”

He warned them the materials could be illegible or boring.

“If I’d been really mean I could have put out account ledgers, which are pretty boring even for PhD researchers,” he said. “What we’re looking for here is insight, not entertainment.”

The students took their seats, put on their gloves and gingerly opened their folders. For the next hour, they quietly read the words of long-dead missionaries.

On Sept. 8, 1890, Father Prando at St. Francis Xavier Mission in Montana wrote about educating Crow Indian children:

“These children are severed away from their lodge and brought to school where they will loose the tracks of the Indian mythology and foolish traditions, that the old women are telling to their children during the long nights of winter and in the mountain breeze in summer, filling up their brains with wild imaginations and stories, so the very fact of having children out of their lodge is a great step towards civilization and religion.”

Read from a modern perspective, Prando’s words are an ominous death knell for Native American culture. Katrina Straub, 15, read Prando’s mission diary and looked at an old photo from the mission school of a white teacher and Indian girls dressed in calico.

“It actually interests me,” she said. “I wasn’t too sure about it at first. But this is pretty special.”

One student asked Kingma to decipher a word he read as “lefer.” The word was “leper,” but the “p” looked like an “f.”

The letters the student read were by Father Conrady, writing from China to Father Cataldo in

“To pacify the lepers, my assistant promised to bring me back on a steamer to die among them.”

Another student read first-hand accounts of a smallpox outbreak at Holy Cross Mission in Alaska. Another read the mission diary, which had a three-month gap during the epidemic.

They may be able to piece together the story when they share notes next week. The students will pool their research and write reports on the missions they studied.

Kingma asked for copies of their reports and said he would put them in a folder for researchers to find in 100 years.

He praised their behavior and invited them back.

“As you go through your high school career and start doing research papers you’re welcome to come back and chat with me,” he said. “This is a resource that’s available to you as you go through your education.”


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