BRUNSWICK — The junior high school was abuzz with more than just typical Friday excitement May 11, when seventh-graders broke away from their standard classroom routine for a special reason.
The afternoon marked the school’s first-ever Wabanaki Cultural Day, and allowed the students to try their hands at traditional native crafts and activities.
Teachers also got a break from their usual classes, as experts in each area of instruction from the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribes led the activities.
Social studies teacher Carla Shaw, one of the organizers of the event, said it was made possible by a $2,500 grant from the Brunswick Community Education Foundation. Shaw and talent development teacher Sharon McCormack applied for the funding.
Maine schools are mandated to teach about Wabanaki culture, but Shaw said “there’s not a lot of resources out there,” aside from some pages in the social studies textbook.
After receiving the grant money, she contacted Gretchen Faulker, director of the Hudson Museum at the University of Maine, and Joseph Charnley, a teacher at King Middle School in Portland, both of whom gave her leads to people who could help with the event.
She said she and fellow social studies teacher Dick Weafer, another organizer of the day, have a strong desire to teach about Wabanaki culture.
“We really want to teach the history and culture because the Wabanaki, the different tribes involved, are trying to have a resurgence because things were really tough for them in the ‘60s and ‘70s,” she said. “Now it’s a really positive presence, and I have to say everybody we talked to was so willing to come and so willing to give us information, I think it’s been a great partnership.”
Shaw and Weafer said Wabanaki Day, which was spread out to different classrooms in one wing of the school and also included some outside activities, was a great opportunity for hands-on learning.
“I have a real problem with kids who waste their lives on video games,” Shaw said. “So to see them engaged in something like this, and to see them sitting and doing beadwork or working on paddles or flint making, that’s something they can go home and do.”
Another feature of Wabanaki Day was a documentation room, where students recorded the event with video cameras and interviewed fellow students, presenters and teachers about the day. The goal was to make a documentary.
Bridgid Neptune, a member of the Passamaquoddy tribe, was assigned to help with the documentary station. Neptune said she thinks Wabanaki Day is important “for everyone in Maine,” not just students.
“It’s a collective history, it’s not just native or Wabanaki history; everyone is impacted by the past and the present day,” she said. “I think it’s especially important to recognize the Wabanaki presence in Maine. There’s so many Mainers that have no idea that there are indigenous (people).”
Neptune, who has also been involved in teaching Wabanaki culture at Portland Public Schools, said many students also uninformed about Maine’s native culture.
“There’s so many students that have no idea there’s natives in Maine, and then when they do find out, they expect that I don’t have a phone, and I live in a tepee – which isn’t even appropriate for this region,” she said.
Teaching about native culture may be mandated by the state, but a lot of schools “aren’t aware” of the requirement, and, as a result, the education isn’t “implemented effectively or broadly” around Maine, Neptune said.
In addition to the hands-on activities, students also got a chance for a more informal question-and-answer session with Barry Dana, a former chief of the Penobscot Nation, after he taught about how to make bow and fire drill kits.
Elise Mackey, a seventh-grade student, said she thinks Wabanaki culture is “really interesting” and Mainers should work to “keep it preserved,” because “some people want it to hide away, and it should keep being here.”
Learning about the Wabanaki through activities, she added, was a different experience than learning in a classroom setting.
“We learned about them through (the) textbook, but we didn’t actually learn about them through culture,” she said.
Neptune said overall, the local schools she’s worked with have been “very receptive” to teaching more about the Wabanaki, and she hopes Wabanaki Day continues for years to come.
“If you can really connect and see similarities in other people,” she said, “then the world is going to be a better place for everyone.”
Brunswick Junior High School seventh-graders learn basket weaving with the help of a volunteer at the school’s first-ever Wabanaki Cultural Day on Friday, May 11.
Seventh-grade students at Brunswick Junior High School listen May 11 as Sarah Gladu, director of education and environmental monitoring at the Damariscotta River Association, teaches a lesson on wigwam building during Wabanaki Cultural Day.
Seventh-graders work on building a wigwam outside Brunswick Junior High on May 11.
A wigwam built by Brunswick Junior High students as part of Wabanaki Cultural Day.
Chris Sockalexis demonstrates flint making to a class of Brunswick Junior High seventh-graders at Wabanaki Cultural Day May 11.