On John Bear Mitchell's first day of junior high school -- off the Penobscot reservation where he lived and had attended grammar school -- a teacher scolded him for speaking in his native language. The boy nearly was expelled.
At the two Native American schools Education World visited in northern Maine, cultural heritage used to be maintained by a diminishing number of tribal members fluent in their native languages and knowledgeable about their traditions. But the introduction of Native American studies to the schools' curricula has yielded an enthusiastic response from students. Tribal leaders hope that the resurgence of native studies in many reservation schools over the past 18 years will help the next generation recapture its now struggling culture. Included: Descriptions of Native American studies programs.
"I took a proactive position, though," he continued. "Instead of putting my head down and believing what I was hearing, I lifted my head up and I got my education in education so I could help our kids understand a little bit of who they are. Then they can talk about who they are when they are put in these positions and these situations." Mitchell, who has a master's degree, plans to earn a doctorate in curriculum development.
Mitchell and other native studies teachers at two Maine reservation schools Education World visited --Indian Island and Beatrice Rafferty School on the Pleasant Point Passamaquoddy reservation in Perry -- believe teaching students about their culture instills pride and leads to greater academic success. They have committed themselves to preserving and passing on their culture and languages, often motivated by their own experiences with prejudice.
CULTURE IS PERVASIVEFrom the first moment a visitor walks into Indian Island and Beatrice Rafferty schools, there is no mistaking that the students, teachers, and community members value their Native American heritage and language. At Indian Island School a floor mosaic at the school's entrance depicts a Native American man in traditional headdress, and the following words: Penobscot Indian Nation, purity, faith, and valor.
Nearly all of the school's hallway bulletin boards use the Penobscot language to identify the themes of student work. In the school's library, two carved wooden totem polls stand nearly 12 feet tall, the work of community members and the school staff. Large tapestries hang from the library's ceiling, along with many student-designed tapestries representing clans within the tribe.
At Beatrice Rafferty School, the school day begins with announcements that include a student reciting the Passamaquoddy word of the day over the school's public address system. The Passamaquoddy alphabet is displayed on the walls in some of the classrooms. Native American symbols such as woven "dream catchers" and "God's eyes" adorn the wall in the main office.
The tribal influence is more than native words and displays. The tribe's focus on the environment is evident in the school's food recycling program. During the lunch and breakfast periods, a tribal member teaches students to sort their garbage, with leftover food used as compost for the tribal garden.