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Episode 6: Stump The Curator

Kids Ask Why
Kids Ask Why
Episode 6: Stump The Curator

In this episode, we invited kids who were visiting the Buffalo Bill Center of the West to ask questions about the American West of two of the museum’s experts – Nathan Doerr and Hunter Old Elk. With excellent questions about Yellowstone like “Why do hot springs have different colors?” and “What would a day in the life of a Plains Indian be like?”, these inquisitive kids certainly made the curators think and helped them look at the museum in a new way.

Nathan Doerr

Nathan is the Curator of Natural Science for the Draper Natural History Museum at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody. A native of Wyoming, he has held positions as an environmental educator with Teton Science Schools, interpretive park ranger with Grand Teton National Park, Curator of Education, and Executive Director of the Sheridan County Museum, and Curator of Education at the Wyoming State Museum.

Hunter C. Old Elk

Hunter (Crow & Yakama Nations) is the Curatorial Assistant of the Plains Indian Museum at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, WY. In 2016, she earned a B.A. in history emphasizing 20th-Century Native American History at Mount St. Mary’s University in Maryland. Taking a multidisciplinary approach, she engages global audiences through object curation and interpretation, public programming and presentations, digital media, and community working groups. This work examines the complexities of historical and contemporary Plains Indian cultures. In a field historically operated and intentionally disconnected from tribal members, Old Elk’s work focuses on connecting tribal communities of all ages into museum conversations as equals.

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Stump the Curators – Kids Ask The Questions

Why, why, why? 

Why are some hotsprings so many different colors?

Why, why, why?

What would a day be like for the Plains Indians? 

Welcome to the kids ask why podcast, where kids ask questions. This is a production by Wyoming Public Media and the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.

NATHAN: Hi, I’m Nathan Doerr, Curator of the Draper Natural History Museum.

HUNTER: And I’m Hunter Old Elk, Curatorial Assistant for the Plains Indian Museum.

NATHAN: Excellent. So Hunter, we had this really amazing opportunity to kind of flip the deck, if you will, to ask kids what they were interested in learning.

HUNTER: Yeah, my favorite part about talking to kids is they see our objects and our museums in such a different light. And so it was really entertaining to sit and watch these students, or listen to these students talk about all of their interests and questions that they had.

NATHAN: Yeah, so to give our listeners a little bit of background on how we flip the cards on the kids, our education and interpretive staff, set up booths in our museums, and encouraged kids to share their questions with us. And then you and I set up shop here in the studio, and had them come in.

HUNTER: Yeah, and we had students from all walks of life from all over the United States. It was great to to get all of the different students and their ages. So Nathan, how was your experience? Cuz I know you went first and had a whole different group of kids than I did. 

NATHAN: Right. It was so much fun. I loved this experience. The questions were so authentic and really ranged from kids who had just come out of Yellowstone, to those who are about to go into Yellowstone. So would you like to hear their questions?

HUNTER: I would love to.

REMLEE DWYER: My name is Remlee Dwyer. I’m from Geneseo, Illinois. And my question is: How deep is the pools in Yellowstone National Park?

NATHAN: Well, Remlee, that’s an amazing question. So I can tell you my favorite pool in Yellowstone National Park, that my favorite hot spring is Grand Prismatic. And have you been the Grand Prismatic? 


NATHAN: Excellent. So Grand Prismatic is more than 120 feet deep, which seems like a lot, doesn’t it? 

REMLEE: Yeah. 

NATHAN: But when you visited Yellowstone did you see Old Faithful erupt? Yeah, so that’s really high in the air. It’s pretty impressive, isn’t it? So how about how tall do you think Old Faithful is? What’s your guess? 

REMLEE: Around 300 feet?

NATHAN: Yeah, no, that’s a great guess. So Old Faithful, when it erupts, it erupts approximately or at least 120 feet in the air. So Grand Prismatic is as deep as Old Faithful is tall.

ELOWYN: I am Elowyn Sotherton. I’m nine years old and from Minnesota. And I want to know: Why are some hot springs so many different colors?

NATHAN: So why do you think there’s so many different colors? What do you think? Not sure? That’s a good question. So there’s so many different colors, because there’s actually something that lives in that water. Can you imagine that? Is that water hot or cold? 

ELOWYN: Really hot. 

NATHAN: It’s really hot. Right? So does it surprise you to think that there are actually things living in that water? Yeah, so they’re called thermophiles. And they’re really, really tiny heat-loving organisms, but we can’t see them with our naked eye. But when groups and groups of them live together, we can see them. And what’s really amazing is the colors kind of give us little clues about the temperature of the water, because different types of those thermophiles live in different temperatures of water. And so some of those thermophiles are different colors. 

ELOWYN: That’s really cool. 

NATHAN: That is pretty cool, isn’t it?

NATHAN CHANEY: Hi, I’m Nathan, and I’m 12 years old and from Sacramento. I was wondering, in your opinion, what’s the most interesting adaptation of a bird and the most interesting adaptation of a fish?

NATHAN: Nathan, that is an amazing question. And I had to think about this one. So I think, what I think is the most interesting adaptation of a bird is an adaptation in a peregrine falcon. So my thought is, it has this part of its beak called a tomial tooth. And what’s really interesting to me about that is it’s a special part of the beak that helps it to (get ready for this, this is a little gross) to snap the spinal cord of its prey. If the peregrine falcon didn’t kill its prey on on impact. Do you know how fast the peregrine falcon can fly? When it dives?

NATHAN CHANEY: I know it’s somewhere around 50 miles per hour.

NATHAN: Even faster. So the peregrine falcon is actually the fastest animal on Earth. And when it dives when it’s flying high up in the air and it spots its prey, and it begins to dive

NATHAN CHANEY: it folds up, which makes it more air…air streamed…what’s the?

NATHAN: Aerodynamic?

NATHAN CHANEY: Aerodynamic. Thank you. And that basically makes it a torpedo. 

NATHAN: Exactly. And that flying torpedo can reach speeds of around 250 miles per hour. 

NATHAN CHANEY: Okay, that’s impressive. 

NATHAN: That is really impressive. Right. Now, your other question, or part of the question was about fish. I think the the swim bladder is an interesting adaptation, which helps the fish maintain buoyancy in the water. Right, and I think that’s really important, especially when we think about like the lake in Yellowstone. Because have you been through Yellowstone? And have you been by the lake? Yeah, it’s a really big lake, isn’t it? Yes. And it’s really deep. Did you know that deepest part of the lake is about 430 feet deep? 

NATHAN CHANEY: No, I did not. 

NATHAN: Yeah. So that’s not to say that the fish go all the way to the bottom. But I think that’s a pretty interesting adaptation. That helps fish live in a place like Yellowstone Lake.

NATHAN CHANEY: Oh, my personally for the fish, is the fish that can breathe air because that is most of them are fully aquatic.

NATHAN: Absolutely. No, I think that is an adaptation that, I think it out-adapts my adaptation. That’s a good one. 

NATHAN CHANEY: Thank you for having me, Nathan.

NATHAN: Absolutely, Nathan. Thanks for coming in. 

COURTNEY: Hi, I’m Courtney Bach. I’m 17. And I’m from Ellensburg, Washington. And my question for you is: Are there any hidden gems in Yellowstone?

NATHAN: I think that most of the hidden gems are the times when you get away from the popular destinations. And so one recommendation I have is to visit Lone Star geyser. Lone Star geyser is considered a back country geyser. And it’s located in the Upper Geyser Basin, which is the same basin that Old Faithful is located in. But it’s a hike into it. And it erupts every about three hours and the eruptions, they’re about 35 to 40 feet in the air, so considerably less than Old Faithful. But because it’s a backcountry geyser, there aren’t a lot of people there. So it would be really important and my suggestion would be to research. It’s not like, you know, hours and hours or miles and miles. But I think in the other part of that is just taking time. I think some of the hidden gems are just the things you see. In education, like we think of them as teachable moments, and so just observing, and kind of getting away from groups of people and seeing what you can find.

ALEX: My name is Alex, I’m 14 years old, and I’m from Ellensburg, Washington. Um, what are some like different kinds of rocks that you can find in Yellowstone that you can’t find anywhere else? 

NATHAN: Oh, interesting. That’s a really great question. So I think the geological story of Yellowstone National Park is really incredible. And we when we look at the geological story, it’s like 3 million years old, but the rocks are a lot older than that. So Yellowstone has the same kinds of rocks that you would find elsewhere. You would have sedimentary, metamorphic, and igneous rocks. One of my favorite rocks that you find in Yellowstone, and especially in the Grand Teton National Park, is a rock called gneiss and it’s G-N-E-I-S-S. And gneiss is a metamorphic rock. And it’s got these really incredible bands of black and white that are just kind of banded and kind of wild in those rocks. And a really bad joke that I used to have when I was a park ranger in Grand Teton– But you know, there’s rocks that’s granite and gneiss is is another type of rock. So the Tetons are made up of gneiss and granite. And so kind of the joke was when you look at the Tetons, what you’re looking at is pretty nice and the rest you can take for granted. So I think those are some really interesting rocks.

GRACE: I’m Grace. And I am 17. How long do buffalo live?

NATHAN: Buffalo in Yellowstone National Park may live between about 12 and 15 years old. So just a little bit younger than you. But a few have lived as long as 20 years in the wild.

GRACE: Why do they roll in the dirt?

NATHAN: So there’s a word for that, and it’s “wallowing”. It’s kind of a strange word. So when we see bison or buffalo rolling back and forth in the dirt, they’re wallowing. Have you seen them do that? Yes? OK.

GRACE: Yes, because my mum did take a video of it.

NATHAN: Oh, excellent. And so when you saw that buffalo or bison wallowing in the dirt, was it in the open grass? Was it very dusty? What was it like?

GRACE: Dusty.

NATHAN: It was very dusty. So the reason that they’re doing that and wallowing around in the dust is to help protect them from flies and other bugs. Have you ever had like a fly crawling on you? Yeah, it was kind of annoying wasn’t it? Itched? So by wallowing, it helps them get bugs off, but it helps protect them kind of in a layer of dust, so that those bugs aren’t quite as annoying.

So Hunter, I suspect that you had a very different group of questions than I had. Tell me about your experience.

HUNTER: I did have a different group of questions. And so I had a lot of siblings, which was really interesting. And I’m interested, I’m very excited for the listeners to hear their questions.

COLE: Hi, my name is Cole Dobbertin. And, and I’m 10 years old, and I want to ask a question. And it is, why do they wear feathers on their hat?

HUNTER: Have you ever heard of the term warbonnet or feather bonnet? 

COLE: Kind of, not really. I read about them. 

HUNTER: Kinda? What did what did you read about them?

COLE: I read that Indians wear them on their heads and use them as hats.

War Bonnet NA.205.3 Adolf Spohr Collection, Gift of Larry Sheering

HUNTER: They do. So feather bonnets are made of, well, bonnets are made of many different materials. And so those can be made of different types of raptor feathers. Right? So like eagles and hawks and owls. And sometimes we’ve seen like raven feathers. 

COLE: I saw one made out of gold eagle feathers.

HUNTER: Golden eagle feathers? And so Plains Indians, it was typically men, but sometimes women would also wear eagle feather bonnets. And that was meant to represent some kind of status symbol. And so leaders or people who achieved like, really important deeds, were given eagle feathers. And so when you were done something that was really spectacular, you were gifted a feather to use. Our principal and our president, what do they wear? like their clothes?

COLE: They wear a tie and a black dress.

HUNTER: Like a tie a black dress or suit. Right. Sometimes our military people will wear what?

COLE: They would have a star.

HUNTER: Like a star or a bar or some kind of metal.

COLE: And also I looked up something, I found something else that you’ll get gifted a bald eagle feather back then, if you got a horse from the other tribe.

HUNTER: Yep, oh my gosh, Cole. This is excellent. Thank you for reading on this. And so when different men were at war, they did an activity called “counting coup”. And so basically it was four different deeds that would make you a leader or a chief. And so one of them was striking an enemy in battle, but not taking their life. Others was stealing horses. Leading a successful war party. And so as you achieved these different deeds in war, then you were considered a military leader or a chief in some sense. And so that was considered a status symbol. And that’s what the feather bonnets would be used as.

PARKER: My name is Parker, and I’m 10 years old. Why are babies wrapped up in the Indian time?

HUNTER: That is an excellent question. And so right when babies are born, and they’re teeny tiny, have you ever held a baby, Parker? And they’re kind of soft and their limbs?

Cradleboard NA.111.6 The Catherine Bradford collection, Gift of The Coe Foundation

PARKER: Yeah. Well actually, I don’t. I haven’t held one.

HUNTER: But have you been around a baby? 

PARKER: Yeah. And I even touched one. 

HUNTER: So how do people when they’re around babies, how do they treat babies? They hold on to them, right? And they’re really careful and they’re protective. Well, it’s because when babies are born, their bones are not as hard as ours, right? Like, so if you go like this and knock on your arm, right like this, we got hard bones in there. Well, babies don’t have that. And so the mothers would wrap the babies really tight. And they would put them in what’s called a cradle board. And so did you see some cradle boards when you were in the Plains Indian Museum? And so that would protect the baby. And it would be like, a baby carrier or a stroller is how some people would protect their babies. And the cradle boards would help the babies grow really strong backs. And so that when their bones are soft, they can get hard, and then they can start to walk and be toddlers again. And so the moms would hold the cradles either in their arms, or they had a strap that they would put on their back. 

HUNTER: Alright, so can you tell me your name? 

JORDAN: Jordan. 

HUNTER: And Jordan, how old are you? 

JORDAN: I’m 10. 

HUNTER: You’re 10? And what town are you from?

JORDAN: Bolivar, Missouri. What would a day be like for the Plains Indian?

HUNTER: So a day would be very different depending on the seasons, right? So if it is the springtime, that is the time that the men and women would be looking for food and preparing food, in the spring and summertime. And so they would be looking for seasonal berries, right berries, and hunting for different meats and foods. In the winter time, they would be preparing for the frigid seasons, right? Because the West is very, very cold. And so a typical day would be gathering wood and staying by the fire and staying with the family and creating art.

JORDAN: I have another question.

HUNTER: Absolutely. Ask your question. 

JORDAN: In the tipi, do they have the fire inside of the tipi?

HUNTER: They absolutely do. And so the fire is typically right at the door. If you go into the Plains Indian Museum, you can see a couple different tipis that are there. And the tipi is right in the center so that the smoke can go up out of the flaps. And so right if they close the flaps, and you would get all smoked out and then you couldn’t breathe. And so the fire does go inside the tipi.

FINNEGAN: My name is Finnegan Caho

HUNTER: And Finnegan, nice to meet you. How old are you? 

FINNEGAN: Eight years old. Was this museum built on a Indian campground? 

HUNTER: No, the Buffalo Bill Center of the West was not built on an Indian campground. However, the Buffalo Bill Center of the West is in what’s called the Bighorn Basin. And so that is like the regional area that is around here. And before white people or European people moved here, there were over 27 tribes that lived and moved in this region. And so it is a pretty large place and a pretty important place for a lot of different tribes. 

KIANNE: My name is Kianne Roberts, and I’m from Stillwater, and I’m nine years old. Why did they kill buffaloes? 

HUNTER: The Plains Indians survived off of many different buffalo herds. And so that was their main source of food and what they ate. And so when your mom or dad go to the grocery store, right, they they get different foods so that you can nourish yourself. Well, the Plains Indian survived off of the buffalo herds, and then also different seasonal foods, like roots, and potatoes and berries, and then different meats. And so that was why they killed buffalo. But also buffalo was more than just for food. It was also for clothing. And so they use many of the different hides as like shirts and pants. And they took the buffalo hides and they use them like sleeping bags, and they slept on them and so they helped nourish every part of the life.

KOOPER: My name is Kooper. I’m from Oklahoma. I’m nine years old. Where did the beads come from to make clothes?

HUNTER: So Plains Indians traded beads with European trappers and traders. And so many of the beads came from different parts of Europe. And so countries like Italy, the Czech Republic, and then also many different parts of Africa on the the Ivory Coast. And so those beautiful glass beads were created in those countries and then they were traded up to the north and to what is now we consider the United States. And so the women would get these beads and then they created beautiful pieces of work.

NATHAN: Hunter that was such a great interview with those kids. What was your favorite part of the experience?

HUNTER: I think my favorite part was seeing students as they asked their questions relating those questions to how they live every day. Um, everything from kids asking about schooling to food, to the places that people live. And it was really, I loved watching them interact in that way. So Nathan, same question, what was your favorite thing about working with the students?

NATHAN: I loved the authenticity of their questions. And of course, coming from a natural history perspective and a science perspective, I was especially excited that all of their questions were either based on observations that they made while they were in the Park, and they wanted to know more, or they were questions that they were excited to learn about as they went into the Park. And so those are the two driving factors of the scientific method. So that’s what really got me excited is just the the excitement to learn more and to ask questions.

HUNTER: So Nathan, did you have any students that asked questions that kind of stumped you or you had to work to find an answer for?

NATHAN: Absolutely. And that was the fun thing about our experiences. We didn’t really know what the questions were coming into it. And I definitely had a few where I had to take a moment to think. I think my favorite was one of the kids asked about, in my opinion, the the most important adaptations of birds and fish. And he outdid me on his response to his own question. So I loved that experience. And I love kind of being forced to take a moment to think. How about you?

HUNTER: Yes, I had a really similar experience I had one of our students asked if they were tribal communities that lived right here at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West before it was a museum. I had to stop for a second and think– Well, no, I don’t know if there were any tribes that maybe lived in this any one single place. But there were many tribes that lived in this region of the Bighorn Basin. And so it was very fun to go back and forth and teach this kid about about the region of the Bighorn Basin. But yes, I was stumped.