Nurturing through nature

Sassafras Earth Education reconnects children and adults to the natural world.

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Saskia and David Vanderhoop offer a valuable resource to the Island through their indigenous organization, Sassafras Earth Education, and its mission to connect people to nature and through that, to themselves and others. For the Vanderhoops, this connection to the land makes all things possible.

“First of all, we believe that it’s very important that all people, but especially for youth, to reconnect to the earth,” Saskia says. “We have really reached a ceiling in our human existence where we’ve gone too far in many directions.” Their beliefs are that the problems that have happened to the natural world, and the injustices that have happened to IBPOC (indigenous, Black, and people of color) people, stem from the entrenched ramifications of white colonialism.

“What you will see on a day-to-day basis is a bunch of kids being out in nature and having a ton of fun, building fires, learning about tracking, learning to listen to what the birds are saying, and harvesting,” Saskia explains the nuances of their approach. “But underneath that is what we call nature connection mentoring, which is based on thousands and thousands of years of cultural mentoring by indigenous people. It is a holistic, nature-immersion approach that has many elements of living in a village setting. In our beautiful camp, woods, and fields, we practice naturalist, earth-based, and ancestral skills, while fostering respect for the environment, interpersonal and equitable relations, as well as individual growth.”

Behind games that might look like children playing “owls and squirrels,” Saskia explained, there is always the desire to create better leaders for the future.

“We may be planting a tree or taking care of an overgrown shrub, but behind that is our land culture project, which is seeking to restore it to precolonial conditions as much as possible, and teaching the children about that,” she said. Sassafras is in a unique position, as it operates on indigenous land of unbroken lineage that now belongs to David, who is an Aquinnah Wampanoag elder.

Sassafras infuses a strong undercurrent of reparations throughout their nature-based programs, and they begin every gathering with a land acknowledgment. “We address topics with all ages, such as how can we eradicate racism, how can we be better activists, how can we support indigenous people and their visibility?” Saskia explains. “How can we create more harmony with one another? How do we address cultural appropriation, and what even is that?”

There are many children’s outdoor programs divided up by age groups, starting with kids as young as 4 or 5 years old. (See sassafrasmvy.org/youth-programs.) The curriculum is similar throughout, offering seasonal activities that include learning and participating in its LandCulture Project, practicing earth and ancestral skills, harvesting and outdoor processing, naturalist skills, natural and Indigenous history, and activities to quiet the mind, all while following a natural pace.

Their teen programs help youth blossom, to be themselves, with experienced mentors in which they go on adventures, practice skills, face challenges, have conversations on social justice and truth in history and contemporary impacts, and enjoy cooking and eating some good food over the fire. (See sassafrasmvy.org/teen-programs).

Sassafras also offers a homeschool program in addition to its work with the public and charter schools across the Island since, as Saskia says, “they are much more open to understanding that truth in history needs to be taught, and to set up all kinds of programming that is reconnecting children to the land and the truth.”

Ever concerned about equity, Sassafras offers financial aid to Island youth, and through a designated reparation fund, covers full tuition for all IBPOC youth as well as adults.
For this older audience, Sassafras has an ongoing series of monthly open fire circles for adults of all gender orientations. This provides an important place for healing by sharing and listening to what is present in themselves and others in a confidential environment. The longstanding Woman’s Fire Circle provides a space of support and sisterhood for women and those who identify as such. The Sassafras website states, “We start out the evening with an activity or story that connects us to nature and our mother, the earth, and by creating a safe and confidential space. We take turns in sharing about monthly topics that focus on social and environmental justice, while fostering personal transformation.” (See sassafrasmvy.org/adults-families-programs for additional offerings.)

Another endeavor starting in late October will include teaching parents and educators how to bring connection and truth to their children. “It’s a very similar approach to their regular programs, however, focusing on how you teach this to others in a culturally responsible manner; what are the pitfalls you have to watch out for; how do you create more nature connection; and how do you become an active person in an antiracist way,” Saskia says.

In addition, Sassafras is collaborating with the Aquinnah Cultural Center for Indigenous People’s Day, a large event that will take place at Felix Neck. It will also be working with other indigenous organizations off-Island, including the Native Land Conservancy, as well as off-Island schools.

“Because mainstream education continues to tell lies about indigenous people,” Saskia says, “we recently joined hands with an organization called the Long Talk. We think that indigenous and Black people, and people of color, really need to join hands so that white people will understand that they live on stolen lands.”

David emphasizes the thrust of what Sassafras is all about: “What’s most important to me is basically making the unseen, seen again; meaning native people who seemed to have disappeared as far as the United States government goes, with the genocide and such. It is my intention to be seen and to be heard, not only for myself but so that the next generations are able to be seen and be heard and speak up for their part in creating their future …  and flourish like our indigenous cultures did before.”

For more information, visit sassafrasmvy.org or contact Saskia Vanderhoop at 508-645-2008.