Text and Photos Lee, Me.
Like smoke from a sugarhouse, the sound of the drum curls around the stone dining hall and wafts over the alumni house before dissipating into the Maine woods.
Classes have finished for the day at Lee Academy, and students hustle across the green to soccer practice and aerobics, unfazed by the otherworldly noise. On this rural high school campus, drumming is just another after-school activity.
Sitting on the grass near their dormitory, eight Native American students circle a large sand-colored drum. Their voices are strong as they sing and beat the moose hide with slender sticks. In between songs, they banter until someone starts a new rhythm and the others follow. A small audience of teachers and fellow students gathers to watch.
It looks like a casual jam session, but the music-making is actually a traditional process of prayer and spiritual renewal.
"My mother told me, never drum because you want to, but because you need to," remarks sophomore Felicia Moore, a Passamaquoddy Indian.
Peter Neptune, an 11th grader who is also Passamaquoddy agrees, "I drum to pray. I like it--I'm hooked on it. My drum group is like a family."
An hour later, the music ends. The students carefully cover their drum with a dark purple blanket, gather their sticks, and go their own ways.
For nearly 150 years, Lee Academy has educated the children of northern interior Maine. Located in the village of Lee, population 800, the school draws its students from more than 1,000 square miles of tiny townships, unorganized territories, villages, homesteads, and Indian reservations.
It is part of "the other Maine," an area whose economic survival depends almost entirely on one industry: timber. Logging trucks chug along narrow roads to paper mills, and most folks hold multiple jobs to meet their basic needs.
Founded as a normal school in 1845, the academy originally trained teachers for the isolated New England frontier. Economics, however, have forced the school to redefine itself every few generations, shifting its academic focus from teacher training, to agriculture, to college preparation.
In its newest incarnation, Lee Academy is a private day school that prepares its 235 students for college, vocational school, or the workplace. The academy also offers a special five-day boarding program to students from the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot reservations.
Native Americans are relative newcomers to the school. They were first admitted in 1972 to help shore up the school's declining enrollment. This financial maneuver, however, has metamorphosed into a cautious experiment in cross-cultural education that was formalized two years ago by the creation of the Native American Studies Program.
Given the historical tensions between these two insular populations, the school's undertaking is noteworthy. A federal land-claims con~tro~ver~sy originating in the 18th century was settled in 1980, but misunderstanding persists between the dominant white culture and the Indian Way.
The three classes in the program--Native American studies, Native American literature, and environmental sciences--are designed to be forums where students can deal with their misconceptions about each other and where they can explore their own heritage, be it Native American or European.
About 50 students are enrolled in the elective classes, which count toward English, social-studies, and science requirements.
The eight faculty members involved in the program are quick to emphasize that their perspective on Indian culture is limited, gleaned from readings and conversations with Native Americans. For several years, they hesitated to create the program and did so only after receiving support from both Native Americans and the headmaster, Barry MacLaughlin.
But doubt lingers, and some teachers would like to see more native people teaching.
"I've always felt that I'm not the person to be doing this, but if I don't, who will?" asks Kevin Ritchie, who teaches the literature course. "You open yourself to the potential for a lot of controversy--a white school teaching native things."
Of the five full-time faculty members who teach Native American studies, only one, Patty Houghton, is an American Indian. A graduate of Lee, she enjoys being a role model and liaison for the native students. ~"They feel very comfortable with me, and they are happy that the white teachers want to learn about their culture," Houghton says.
On the surface, the dormitory at Lee resembles those at many boarding schools: Rock music blasts from the windows, students lounge in front of a television set, and painted murals color cinder-block walls.
But this dorm is a place where native students can ease into white culture while strengthening their own identity. And while many boarding students complain about dorm life, these 33 Native Americans relish it, comparing the community to an extended family.
That family includes dorm parents Tina Pond and Kirk Ritchie as well as Barry MacLaughlin and his wife, Ellen. All four tutor students and visit with them in the evenings. In the process, they try to impart the reasons behind white values and attitudes so these youngsters will be better equipped to navigate the dominant culture.
"We are not a panacea, nor do we have all of the answers," emphasizes Kendra Ritchie, the school's admissions director and guidance counselor. "But we do try to offer them a grounding. We also want to provide a link so they can connect with themselves and their culture."
That link is made possible by Native Americans who visit the dorm to share their knowledge and perspectives of Indian cultures. Two native women teach a weekly class in crafts, such as drumming or beadwork, and the Passamaquoddy language. These cultural activities are open to both native and non-native students. Last year, students built their own drum with the guidance of Barry Dana, a Penobscot Indian.
The mix offers a healthy perspective on both cultures. "I especially like it when people come from the reservations to teach us things like language," says Plansowes Dana, a 10th grader who is the official drum keeper. "It's really funny to hear non-native kids speaking Passamaquoddy. But some of them pronounce the words better than we do."
Other evening speakers discuss such issues as personal health and college preparation. Teachers and counselors also work with the students to deal with specific problems.
Ellen MacLaughlin notes: "These are really unique kids. Some of them have been through so much by the time they get here. I'm amazed they do as well as they do."
You can drive through Pleasant Point without realizing that it's an Indian reservation. Boys and girls shoot hoops on the elementary school playground across from the red brick Roman Catholic church, and pickup trucks dot the Sipayik Super Saver parking lot.
Unlike some Western reservations, this land has been inhabited by the Passamaquoddy for more than a thousand years. But like many Indian reservations, it harbors a wounded history that continues to trouble families today.
Alcohol abuse is a common problem on the reservation. Gail Rae, a special-education teacher, estimates that a third of Lee's Native American students are learning disabled, in part as a result of fetal-alcohol syndrome.
Students often return to difficult family situations when they go home on the weekends. For them, Lee is a kind of refuge. Although there are several high schools close to the reservation, many students choose Lee because of its welcoming environment. And while some students feel that prejudice can be a problem at Lee, they believe that the problem is worse at other schools.
"Some kids will hate us no matter what--that's just the way it is," observes sophomore Seana Tomah.
Barney Berube, who oversees federal projects for language-minority students for the state education department, acknowledges that Lee Academy is unique in the state among high schools that serve Native American students.
"They have gone out of their way to try to understand what will make these kids tick, stay in school, and go on to college," he says. "It is a truly nurturing place."
Tim Morang, a 1988 graduate, credits his current job at the reservation school to his positive experience at Lee. "I'm an educational technician, and that comes from going to Lee," he says. "It taught me that teachers can be friends."
Recently, when Kendra Ritchie visited the reservation school, 7th and 8th graders swarmed around her, asking about orientation day and sending messages to their siblings and cousins. Like many of these young enthusiasts, Asleavesturncolor Dana, an 8th grader, said she plans to attend Lee Academy next year.
For more than 21 years, Ted Mitchell, a Penobscot Indian, has been involved in Indian education. He directs the Wabanaki Center for the Native American Program at the University of Maine, which encourages native students to pursue higher education. Like many parents and tribal elders, he supports Lee's approach. "They are doing wonderful things to encourage Indian students to stay in high school and graduate," he says. "This is tremendous."
As part of the 1980 land-claims settlement, Native Americans can attend any state institution of higher education free of charge. Almost all native students do continue their education within a few years of graduating from Lee Academy.
Atypical Prep School
Lee Academy is not the only New England boarding school reaching out to American Indian youngsters. Northfield Mount Hermon School in Northfield, Mass., Cushing Academy in Ashburnham, Mass., and Proctor Academy in Andover, N.H., each enroll several Native American students, mostly from Western reservations.
Both Northfield Mount Hermon and Proctor offer a Native American-studies course. Proctor also has a traditional sweat lodge built by a Lakota Indian from South Dakota.
Like Lee, these schools expose Indian students to traditional cultures by bringing Native Americans on campus to teach and by taking students to powwows and other cultural events.
Unlike these more traditional prep schools, however, Lee Academy does not depend on well-heeled families; tuition is paid by each student's town or reservation. If a student lives in an unorganized territory, the state will pay. The region's demographics explain this peculiar financing. In the 1960's, local high schools consolidated to offer stronger academics. As a result, students can choose to attend one of four area high schools; a few even attend, at state expense, a school in Canada because it is closer to home.
Based on the state per-pupil average, Lee's tuition is about $5,000 this year. Room and board run $2,900. By contrast, the average cost for a year of boarding school is $17,500, according to John Reddan of the Association of Boarding Schools.
Tuition makes up most of the school's annual $1.5 million operating budget. It also has a solid endowment that is strongly supported by alumni and friends and by the Dewitt Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund. Last year, the graduating class received $32,000 in scholarship money from the endowment. Roughly 70 percent of Lee's graduates continue their education at some level.
Headmaster MacLaughlin says that enrollment has dipped slightly in recent years, but he remains unconcerned. "If we can't get bigger, we'll get better," he says. "We will keep changing as we have before--we'll always be a frontier school."