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Wigwam Escape at the Institute of American Indian Studies

Tucked in the Washington woods, a portion of forest holds the key to survival. If foods and medicine are secured before sunset, ailing residents in a neighboring Native American village will live.

The adrenaline rush is triggered as soon as one enters the Wigwam Escape—a permanent fixture at the Institute of American Indian Studies—that offers insight into how Native Americans lived centuries ago in Litchfield County.

To obtain supplies, participants must solve a series of puzzles within 60 minutes. The room authentically captures life in 1518—which means phones, written language, or keys are nonexistent.

The attraction has brought new visitors to IAIS, thanks to three Litchfield County youngsters who met on a school bus, grew up respecting nature and history, and as adults desire to create meaningful educational experiences.

Museum educator Griffin Kalin designed the room and is its creative director. His ties to IAIS are rooted in childhood when his parents worked with museum staff to build exhibits, teach classes, and replicate Stone Age tools. Later, he became a summer camp leader.

“The concept behind it was a way to engage an age demographic that we found was under represented, while also facilitating hands-on learning,” explains the Bethlehem resident and Hartford Art School graduate.

The design took around two months. Jesse Stephen and Lauren Bennett, fellow graduates of Nonnewaug High School in Woodbury, joined the project. Together, with help from staff and volunteers, they created scenery and props: giant rocks constructed of wooden and wire frames, then carved and painted; corn stalks made of PVC, wire, and masking tape; and an authentic wigwam constructed with bark.

“The institute trusted me to curate a vision of this land and I spent time daily out in it to inform every decision I made,” reveals Stephen, a Maine College of Art graduate, who drew inspiration from the Connecticut woods he began roaming as a child in Woodbury. The final wall-to-wall mural he painted is a realistic depiction of mountain laurel, lush forests, mushrooms, and a native village.

Like Kalin, Stephen’s connection to IAIS springs from childhood when he visited as a Mitchell Elementary School student.
“The longhouse room struck me as a child” he reminisces, “and I found myself thinking about it frequently as I was working on the escape room’s mural.”

He describes the process as painstaking at times; fast-drying paint required deliberate action and “every leaf and twig and patch of moss ended up being a decision.” Time in Wigwam Escape is measured by the passing of a simulated day—dawn until dusk—so another challenge was capturing an environment of shifting light.

The result has generated an “overwhelmingly positive” response, shares Bennett, program coordinator and museum educator. Regardless of their age, visitors bond with family and friends while learning “incredibly important history.”

“Having an experience that caters to different learning styles is crucial,” explains the former IAIS summer camp counselor who studied anthropology at Temple University and values teaching about Indigenous culture in a hands-on way. “This museum isn’t about looking at artifacts behind glass, but rather learning more about the stories these objects tell and about the people they came from.”

Stephen agrees. “I think Wigwam Escape encourages empathy for another way of life and engages these powerful problem-solving parts of our brains in tandem with those parts we usually use when just reading a plaque,” he notes. “I hope that in some small way I can be an ally to, and help amplify native voices, and foster the same love and respect for this land that I feel.”


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