Breaking Barriers

By Megan Drennan — January 01, 1995 8 min read

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 American Indian 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. “I drum to pray,” says 11th grader Peter Neptune, a Passamaquoddy Indian. “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 a part of Maine that survives 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, has 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 boarding program to American Indian students from the nearby Passamaquoddy and Penobscot reservations. Under an unusual arrangement, students’ tuition money comes from public or reservation coffers.

American Indians are relative newcomers to Lee. 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 the white and Indian populations of this insular region, the school’s undertaking is noteworthy. A federal land-claims controversy originating in the 18th century was settled in 1980, but misunderstanding persists between the dominant white culture and the Indian way.

The program consists of three classes—Native American studies, Native American literature, and environmental sciences. The courses 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 American Indian 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 American Indians and headmaster Barry MacLaughlin. Still, 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?” says 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,” Houghton says, “and they are happy that the white teachers want to learn about their culture.”

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 colorful murals cover cinder-block walls. But this dorm is a place where native students can ease into white culture while strengthening their own identity. And while boarders at many schools complain about dorm life, these 33 American Indians 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 American Indians who visit the dorm to share their knowledge and perspectives of Indian cultures. Two native women teach the Passamaquoddy language and a weekly crafts class. These cultural activities are open to both native and nonnative 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 nonnative 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 help the students deal with specific problems they are having. “These are unique kids,” says Ellen MacLaughlin. “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. Gail Rae, a special education teacher, says this may help explain why as many as one-third of Lee Academy’s American Indian students are learning disabled.

Some students return to difficult family situations when they go home on the weekends. For them, Lee is a kind of refuge. Although there are public high schools close to the reservation, many students choose Lee because of its welcoming environment. And while a few 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 among the state’s high schools that serve American Indian 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.”

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.”

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.”

Lee is not the only New England private 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 American Indian students, mostly from Western reservations. Both Northfield and Proctor offer a Native American-studies course. Proctor even 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 does not depend on well-heeled families for support; tuition is paid by each student’s town or, in the case of the American Indian students, reservation. If a student lives in an unorganized territory, the state will pay. The region’s demographics explain this peculiar tuition arrangement. In the 1960s, area high schools consolidated to offer stronger academics. As a result, students can choose to attend one of three public high schools in the region or Lee; a few even attend, at state expense, a school in Canada because it is closer to home.

Based on the state’s per-pupil average, Lee’s tuition is about $5,000. Room and board run $2,900. By contrast, the average private boarding school costs $17,500 a year, according to the Association of Boarding Schools.

Tuition makes up most of Lee’s annual $1.5 million operating budget. But it also has a solid endowment that is strongly supported by alumni, friends, and the DeWitt Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund. Last year, the graduating class received $32,000 in college scholarship money from the endowment. Roughly 70 percent of Lee’s graduates go on to some other form of higher education.

Headmaster MacLaughlin says 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.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 1995 edition of Teacher as Breaking Barriers