Former Penobscot Nation Chief Barry Dana sits with a basket he made. He hopes by sharing his work and stories with kids, he can grow an appreciation for Native culture. Courtesy photo / Arts Are Elementary

Former Penobscot Nation Chief Barry Dana said his work as an artist in residence with Brunswick fifth graders this week is a good opportunity for him to share Native art and promote an appreciation of his culture.

Dana taught Wabanaki basket making skills to students at Harriet Beecher Stowe Elementary School  Monday and will give a repeat performance via video Friday, sponsored by non-profit Arts are Elementary.

Many Mainers don’t realize that the Penobscot Nation still exists “just 10 miles upriver,” Dana said.

“We are lucky to have Barry Dana, who is a talented artist and a gifted educator joining us to work with our students,” said Shanna Crofton, the school district’s curriculum director. “This residency will give fifth-grade students the chance to learn about Wabanaki art and culture from Chief Dana through hands-on activities.”

Dana’s classes will offer “students an opportunity to be creative and think critically,” Crofton said.

Dana learned basket making from the elders he grew up with. Through his own creations and by teaching basket making to Native students, he hopes to preserve the art, he said. In sharing it with non-Native Maine children, he hopes they will develop an appreciation for a culture they learn about but don’t often interact with.

I can give them an awareness of it and appreciation for it, and let them know there are Native people still here in our own homelands,” he said.

“When I leave at the end of the day they know Penobscots and the Wabanaki are part of today’s society,” Dana said. “We don’t live in 500 years ago. We live as they do, but we hold on to old values.”

Dana said when working with young students he puts the “ball in their court,” requiring students to think critically and ask him questions about what they want to know.

At the same time, teachers prepared for his visit with a unit on colonialism, so Dana expects some questions along those lines.

“We preserve our old ways, but we have adopted and accepted new ways because that’s the way life is,” he said. “We’ve been in contact for 400 years, and by nature, you have to adopt the dominant society if you are going to survive within it. That’s why we drive cars, have cell phones.”

Dana said he enjoys teaching children because he can reach through to them conversation, rather than just speaking for an hour.

He likes his work, but at age 62, he said, he’s “moving towards retirement.”

“At some point in the near future, I won’t be doing this anymore. I’ve got to be thinking about who is going to replace me,” he said.

For now, though, Dana said he is happy working with kids and hopes to impart at least one takeaway lesson.

“What I’m teaching has to be meaningful, otherwise I could talk all day. I could say 185 things, they’ll hold on to one. But if that kid asks me a question, and they learn that they’ll learn it. They will take that with them,” he said.

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