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Fallen Timbers 6th graders learn cultural, historical significance of henna

Social studies class often covers more than just dates and events. It gives students the opportunity to learn about the human experience through study of the cultural and economic of time periods throughout history. Sixth-grade students at Fallen Timbers Middle school recently explored the historical, cultural and economic significance of henna and how it connects people through traditions, rituals and shared experiences.
Mrs. Carla Rygalski was able to provide this experience for her students thanks to a $500 grant from Directions Credit Union.

“I attended a henna workshop at the Waterville Library and I thought it would be the perfect culmination of our study of Egyptian and Indian history," Carla said. "I'm grateful to have the grant funding, because without it I could not share this experience with my students." 
Guest speaker, Jen Schafer, owner of Henna Muse of Fort Wayne, Indiana presented the history and cultural significance of henna and offered a new way to consider history.
“Often when we look at history, it’s about the conflicts that happened or the battles that were won and lost,” she said. “But it’s important to also know that people of different cultures did live near each other peaceably and shared their traditions and practices with each other. Henna is an example of how different groups in the same region adopted and adapted their cultural practices over time.”
Henna, derived from the leaves of the henna plant grows exclusively in warm, dry climates – making it a common plant in northern Africa and the Middle East. Students learned that Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and Christian communities have historical ties to henna, using it in celebrations, religious ceremonies and daily life.
Historians have learned about henna by studying paintings, sculpture, art, literature and law documents. Its story is one told through women, artists and healers. The earliest references are from the ancient Egyptian mummies who were found with henna-dyed hair and medicinal uses to cool fevers and heal skin conditions. Henna later became popular and more widely used when Cleopatra added it to her beauty regime.
Over time, henna has been used as a symbol of beauty and celebration, adorning hair, beards and skin during religious and cultural celebrations, and later spilling over into weddings and other special events. Many people today still use henna cosmetically, decorating their hands and arms and staining their fingernails.
One fascinating aspect of henna’s history is its journey along trade routes, like the Silk Road, where the practice and the product traveled between Africa and Europe to Asia. This exchange of culture and commerce led to henna’s widespread adoption in regions like Spain, where Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Jewish communities coexisted.
It later became significant in periods of conflict, such as the Inquisition, when it became associated with religious identity and was challenged by law and persecution.
Students learned that the use of henna continued to change as technology and trade expanded. For example, the intricate and ornate patterns that most people associate with henna art did not develop until the 1970’s when women used plastic packaging as tools to apply the henna paste with more precision.
Following her presentation, Jen applied small henna designs on students’ wrists and hands, allowing them to experience the practice. The one-on-one interaction allowed them time to ask more detailed questions and share their thoughts.
Through their exploration of henna, lesson provided students a unique experience to gain a deeper understanding of how cultural practices are shared, adopted and modified over time. Special thanks goes to Directions Credit Union for supporting the opportunity, and to Jen Schafer for sharing her knowledge and expertise.

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