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People attending the American Indian Culture And Education Program holiday potluck dinner play a Native American drum in Martinez, Calif., on Friday, Dec. 14, 2012. The American Indian Culture And Education Program provides educational and cultural support for students with America Indian ancestry. The program also provides a four day long day camp held at the end of the school year. (Doug Duran/Staff)

Growing up in Richmond and Martinez in the 1950s and '60s, Chuck Drake learned little about his American Indian heritage except from his great-aunt, who also gave him his native name: Kiwednon. Loosely translated, it means Man from the North in the language of his ancestral tribe, the Potawatomi, whose homeland is in the Great Lakes region.

Drake, 63, a welder in Napa, began to study his heritage in depth about eight years ago. As a child, he never heard of any organizations in Contra Costa County dedicated to teaching kids the history of America's indigenous people.

That is one big reason why Drake is now a strong supporter of the American Indian Culture & Education Program, which provides tutoring, cultural education and an annual weeklong summer camp in Briones Regional Park for students in kindergarten through high school in four school districts who claim American Indian heritage. The districts are John Swett, Martinez, Mt. Diablo and Antioch. The total enrollment is 800 students, said Director Kathy Farwell.

On Friday, Drake said the opening prayer at the organization's 2012 Winter Gathering in the multipurpose room of its headquarters at the Martinez Adult Education center. Then came a potluck dinner and an impromptu drumming circle formed by a half-dozen chanting women and girls. Earlier, children made beading and feather crafts for the holidays.

Toni Exner, 11, a student at Martinez Junior High School, has been in the program virtually all her life.

"It helps us learn about Native Americans and how we began," said Toni, whose mother, Penny Benitez-Exner, is on the advisory Golden Eagle Parent Committee. "It helps me learn what the symbols are."

Jenisse Persaud, 15, a sophomore at New Leaf, an alternative high school in Martinez with an emphasis on ecology, said the program, which benefits from the annual Share the Spirit campaign, helped teach her who she is and how she fits into the world. Without it, "I wouldn't know where my tribe is from," said Jenisse, whose native ancestry is Cherokee. "I wouldn't know how to make a dreamcatcher or a soapstone culture."

A dreamcatcher is an artifact in the shape of a circle, with webbing, designed to protect a sleeping person from bad dreams. Soapstone, found in nature, is prized for its workability and has been used by many American Indian tribes for art as well as everyday objects like bowls.

Rachel Persaud, 32, Jenisse's mother, went through the program as a child. Today, she does in-class tutoring as one of the program's five para-educators. Her Cherokee heritage was not much discussed at home when she was growing up.

"Everything I learned, over time, was from this program," Persaud said. "Much of what we were taught in school was wrong, or perceived incorrectly."

She offered an example, one that was echoed by other participants at Friday's gathering, in the way many schools teach about Thanksgiving -- as a kind of love fest between Indians and Pilgrims, isolated from its historic context.

"At that time, a lot of Native Americans were killed; their land was stolen; their food was stolen," Persaud said. "There was one event where they ate together."

Robin Alvarez, whose adult daughter Tracy attended the program as a child, remembers how in those days, in classroom plays around Thanksgiving, kids dressed up as Indians with paper bags and feathers.

"A lot of the plays focused on how great the Pilgrims are: They invite the neighbors to share their feast," said Alvarez, whose native heritage is Tohono O'odham, a tribe in southern Arizona.

These days, some of the Thanksgiving teaching has shifted from Pilgrims and Indians toward a kind of international harvest festival, Alvarez said. What remains largely untold is how American Indians were pushed off their land and decimated by imported diseases, she said.

Alvarez wants today's American Indian children to be proud of their heritage and speak up in class when the subject is discussed insensitively, incompletely or inaccurately. Ultimately, all students, American Indian and other, will gain from a more accurate telling of history, she believes.

The American Indian Culture & Education Program receives federal Title 7 education funds and Bureau of Indian Affairs funds for the summer camp. The program's annual budget is $175,000, including $2,500 in donations.

But officials and parents said the program is still strapped for funds. The summer camp, formally named "Outdoor Summer Heritage Program -- Ways of our Ancestors," already is scaled down to four days.

Contact Tom Lochner at 510-262-2760. Follow him at Twitter.com/tomlochner

The Share the Spirit campaign, sponsored by this newspaper, benefits nonprofit agencies in Alameda and Contra Costa counties. To help, clip the coupon accompanying this story or go to https://volunteer.truist.com/vccc/donate. Readers with questions and corporations interested in making large contributions may contact the Volunteer Center of the East Bay, which administers the fund, at 925-472-5760.