PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — While pepperoni pizza, hot dogs, chicken nuggets and potato puffs typically are served in the Presque Isle Middle School cafeteria, sixth-graders in Peggy Kelley’s classes recently got to sample more diverse food items, including bear, moose, deer and elk as part of a potlatch celebration.
“I teach the students about the five major Indian groups of Canada, which include the Northwest Coast Indians who were instrumental in celebrating potlatch and designing elaborate totem poles,” said Kelley, a social studies and language arts teacher at the school.
Kelley said the Northwest Coast Indians appreciated the gifts that they received from the land and the sea. When a villager, usually a chief or a male of high standing in the community, felt especially grateful for all he had, he invited other villagers to a potlatch, a feast at which a person who had plenty of food and goods would give it all away.
“According to a visitor to the Northwest Coast, one chief once gave away 30,000 blankets,” said Kelley. “Another chief, who favored jewelry, gave away thousands of silver and brass bracelets. Within the community, the potlatch was a kind of contest. The person who gave away the most was the winner, and the prize was the respect of the other villagers.”
Kelley and her friends cooked the dishes in slow cookers the night before the feast. Much of the food was brought in by her students. In addition to the meats, the potlatch included pickles, ployes, or buckwheat pancakes, homemade doughnuts, stuffing and fiddleheads.
The youngsters enjoyed the experience and expressed preferences when prompted.
“I liked the bear meat the most because it’s a little bit like hamburger, and it’s something that I’ve never tried before,” said Amy Seeley. “All of the kids got to try some foods they liked, or foods that they’ve never had before. It was really fun.”
“I liked the partridge because it looks and tastes like chicken,” said Madison Walton.
Sarah Morneault agreed.
“I liked it because it wasn’t dry and it had lots of flavor,” she said. “I thought the potlatch was great. I had lots of fun and ate almost everything on my plate.”
Colby Ouellette preferred the ployes.
“I loved them so much that I had nine of them,” he said. “My Dad used to make them but then we went into pancakes. I think Mrs. Kelley should host a potlatch for the entire school, and the only way to get in is to bring something to eat.”
Though Nathan Collins enjoyed the food, he said the potlatch also served another purpose.
“It taught us a lot of things like manners and thankfulness,” he said. “It was very fun.”
Equally enjoyable for the students was creating their own totem poles.
“It was fun for me to make my totem pole about my own life,” said Victoria Williamson. “My Papa helped me make it. I learned that the Canadian Indians used animals for their totem poles, but we created ours to present to the class about ourselves. I plan to keep it and put it in my bedroom.”
Sixth-grader Gabby Donovan said this was a project she will always remember.
“I enjoyed learning about the Northwest Coast Indians and how they used different symbols to make their totem poles,” she said. “I also really liked making one about my own life.”
Kelley said some of the totems this year reflected the students’ family, friends, hobbies, music, travel, school, collections, favorite pets and prized possessions.
“Totem poles can be made out of paper towel rolls, wood, plastic, styrofoam, coffee cans, PVC pipes, boxes, mailing tubes … even nut cans,” she said. “The students are very creative and artistic; no two are alike, and when they are ready to do their oral presentations, they do the unveiling of their creative designs. Many parents have shared the fact that they feel it’s a great project that they get to do with their child.”
Teacher Casey Johnson also incorporated Native American activities in her math and science classes.
Kelley has incorporated the totem pole presentations and potlatch celebration into her curriculum the last few years. Kelley and Johnson agreed that this interdisciplinary unit would be a “wonderful sixth-grade educational memory” and plan to continue it next year.