Summer camp aims to create future environmental leaders in Maine’s tribes

Posted July 13, 2014, at 4:33 p.m.
Last modified July 14, 2014, at 2:50 p.m.

WINTER HARBOR, Maine — Barry Dana is worried about the next generation of environmental leaders within Maine’s Native American tribes.

The former Penobscot Nation chief said Tuesday he and others began to recognize several years ago that the tribal members running some institutions were getting older and there was no one to replace them.

“[Darren] Ranco realized that we didn’t have kids in the sciences,” he said, referring to the University of Maine professor of anthropology and coordinator of Native American Research.

That is why Dana and other experts on Wabanaki culture, accompanied by forestry professionals, led nearly 30 high school students on a trek along a crudely maintained trail into the woods last week.

The students were participating in the Wabanaki Youth Science Program, which includes a week-long earth science camp hosted at Schoodic Point for native students.

Dana said the program’s mission is to “turn [the students] on to science, through the lens of their own culture.”

“Our culture mandates that we are caretakers,” he said. “We’re taking native kids and making sure they’re strong in their culture and giving them the reins.”

The program is funded through UMaine’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research and Forestry Department and the Frederika Gillroy Trust for Native American Education, according to Tish Carr, one of the organizers.

The students come from each of Maine’s tribes, as well as the Haudenosaunee tribes in New York. Carr said the camp’s curriculum was inspired in part by a similar program started by the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe in Massachusetts.

The students in the program learn about science and their cultural heritage simultaneously. They receive lessons on forestry, climate change and local plant species, along with basket-weaving and tribal history.

In a clearing in the woods, a discussion of the importance of soil was led by Bill Livingston, associate professor of forest resources at UMaine. Dana contributed by relating Livingston’s points to Penobscot history.

“The last glaciers left 12,000 years ago, and the soil has been developing since,” Livingston told the students, who found places to sit on rocks and under trees. “This soil is 10,000 years old.”

“That’s how old we are,” Dana said, referring to the Wabanaki.

“We have soil here today because the people who were here let the soil develop,” Livingston added.

When Ernest Carle, a forester for the Passamaquoddy Tribe, discussed the characteristics of a nearby cedar tree, Dana explained that the tree’s sap can be used for medicinal purposes and the wood is good for making paddles for canoeing.

The summer camp is paired with internships in environmental management during the school year that six of the students participated in so far. Those students are also assigned both a cultural mentor from the community and a professional science mentor, which Ranco said is a key component to the program.

Haley Francis, 18, of Indian Island worked at the Penobscot Nation’s Department of Natural Resources this spring as part of the program.

The recent Orono High School graduate said she has loved the outdoors since she was old enough to walk, and her parents would take her fishing and hunting.

“This is relevant to the field of work I want to pursue,” she said on Tuesday. In the fall, Francis will begin her first semester at UMaine where she will major in wildlife ecology, and possibly double major in forestry.

She said she’s leaning toward becoming a big game wildlife biologist someday.

Francis said she appreciates the cultural component of the science program.

“Our ancestors utilized these lands for their purposes,” she said. “They didn’t just go and hunt an animal or kill a plant. If they feel like it’s the right thing to do to pick the plant, they leave an offering for the creator. Or at least that’s what I do.”

After listening to Livingston and Carle, the students split off into small groups to practice measuring the height and width of trees in the area, which Carle said needs to be done to determine “whether it’s economically viable for a logger to make entry or let trees keep growing.”

He told the students that his job with the Passamaquoddy is to harvest in a way that minimizes disturbance. For example, he would not cut a white birch of a certain size because it could be used in the construction of a canoe.

Throughout the morning, the sounds of a nearby construction site, where Carle said a new housing development is underway, could be heard through the trees.

“We’re looking at a permanent change down there,” Carle said. Because of the gravel that’s being laid down, trees will not grow again, he explained.

“You can have both,” Carr said, referring to development and preservation.

“That’s where we need you as our future environmental leaders,” she told the students. “To find that balance … we don’t have the answers yet.”