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Teachers learn tribal culture [archive]

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Teachers learn tribal culture

It was just a week: not much time for teachers trying to grasp a 10,000-year-old culture.

But when they finished a special Native American Studies course last Sunday, some of the 20 men and women who participated described it as a life-changing experience.

The program at Washington County Technical College was arranged in cooperation with the Passamaquoddy Tribe as a way to help Maine schoolteachers prepare to meet a new state mandate to integrate American Indian history and culture into their lesson plans.

"For me, it's been one of the most emotional experiences I've had in a long, long time." said Arnold Clark, a fifth-grade teacher at Calais Middle School. "I'm not the same person today that I was [last] Monday."

Jeannie Hamrin, an instructor at the technical college, developed the course with instructors from the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Indian Township near Princeton and Pleasant Point near Eastport. The main campus, on the St. Croix River in Calais, sits between the two reservations.

It was an intensive seven days as the teachers interacted with Passamaquoddy tribal members and learned about their culture, language, traditions and music.

Judy MacLean, a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher at Pettingill Elementary School in Lewiston, said she was overwhelmed by the drumming. "That feels like the heartbeat of Mother Earth, and we all are going to bring back a lot from this," she said.

What the teachers won't take back is a specific curriculum. The state hasn't come up with one, yet. But last year, the Legislature passed a measure that requires teaching Maine Native American history and culture in schools.

The act was sponsored by Penobscot Nation state Rep. Donna Loring and co-sponsored by Passamaquoddy tribal Rep. Donald Soctomah and others.

The course is a step in a long journey of professional development opportunities for Maine teachers, the technical college said.

But a commission created by the new law will work on developing a specific curriculum for teachers to follow. The commission is made up of four members who represent the Passamaquoddy, the Penobscot Nation, the Houlton Band of Maliseets and the Aroostook Band of Micmacs. It includes the state education commissioner, the chair of the State Board of Education, and the chancellor of the University of Maine System. They are supposed to come up with ways the Department of Education can accomplish its task: "to study the inclusion of Maine Native American history and culture in Maine's Learning Results program."

The educators who participated in the weeklong course at Calais came from as far away as Portland and Jackman and as close as Perry. They included everyone from librarians to high school teachers. They reviewed children's books, heard and watched demonstrations, studied language and met tribal members.

Pleasant Point Gov. Rick Doyle received a distinctive welcome when he visited the teachers. The 20 educators sang the Passamaquoddy welcome song in his native language. Doyle spoke with the group about the struggles the Passamaquoddy have experienced since the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act, which ended a lawsuit involving tribal title to large sections of the state.

Birch bark canoe instructor David Moses Bridges of Pleasant Point spent time with the teachers describing how he takes weeks selecting the right birch tree for use in his work. Bridges' grandfather, Sylvester Gabriel, was one of the last Passamaquoddy to make the birch bark canoe. Now, Bridges is an apprentice with Steve Cayard, a non-native birch bark canoe maker.

Once the right tree is found, Bridges told the teachers, he works with a harness and a knife and peels back the bark on a standing tree. The bark is then rolled and taken to a workshop in Wellington. There, the birch bark is bent and shaped into a canoe. "It's a tradition that could have died," he told the educators.

But not now, Bridges said, because he is an enthusiastic student of the birch bark canoe tradition, and he shares his knowledge with the next generation of Passamaquoddy. While the teachers can't build birch bark canoes, Bridges is among those the teachers met who might visit with a class.

Pleasant Point pipe carrier Dute Francis, who said he is of the Owl Clan, conducted a pipe ceremony and a separate sunrise ceremony. He said it was his grandmother who told him that the owl "is keeper of all medicines at night." To become a carrier of the sacred pipe, he said, he had to fast for four days and nights.

Standing in a circle outside the technical college under sunny skies, Francis slowly prepared the pipe as the teachers watched. He explained that tobacco is a sacred tool that connects the tribe to its creator. In a smudge pot he placed white sage.

Francis then pointed the pipe in the four directions of the medicine wheel -- north, south, east and west -- and quietly spoke words in Passamaquoddy. He then offered the stem of the pipe to the earth and to the sky.

He handed the smudge pot to each of the educators for the cleansing ceremony. With their hands they waved the pungent-smelling smoke over them. Then they each were handed the pipe to smoke.

"One of the things I worry about is how do we do this respectfully and honorably for the Native Americans in terms of integrating it into the curriculum and not be bearers of false information," said Chuck Jacobs, an industrial arts and technology teacher who teaches boat building in Jackman. He said his week with the Passamaquoddy would benefit his students. Paula Maker, a librarian at Washington Academy in East Machias, said she gained insight for when she reviews books for her students. "I now know better -- some of the criteria I need to be especially sensitive, too, such as making sure that the stereotypes are not there, that pictures and text are not offensive to kids."

Dawn Loper, an art teacher at Calais High School, said she was "getting to see that they really do have a distinct culture."

"They have things that are very special about them that I did not know. I can't explain it in words. This week seems to have to do a lot about feelings."

--written by Diana Graettinger, Bangor Daily News

Additional Reading

 Indian Culture
 Mi'kmaq History
 Abnaki-Penobscot
 Glooscap
 Maine's Indians

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