“Many Hands: Wabanaki Paths of Learning”
A Culturally Responsive Arts Based Project in Portland Public Schools
Project Rational: Wabanaki approaches to teaching and learning
While a number of public school students in Maine have had exposure to Wabanaki history and culture, very few have experienced Wabanaki approaches to teaching and learning, which differ from standard teaching practices. By working with Wabanaki artist, Mihku Paul, who is experienced in curriculum enrichment, students were guided to work collaboratively in small groups; plan the art making process based on group consensus; learn with the teacher, rather than from the teacher; and insert their voices into the final artworks which is all part of being grounded in Wabanaki culture.
The “Many Hands” project is designed with several goals in mind:
- Introduce traditional Wabanaki decorative motifs common in various arts and aesthetics.
- Explore symbolism in art, as a method of communication for individuals and cultures.
- Explore universal art concepts; scale, line, form, and color relationships experientially, within the context of Wabanaki culture and history.
- Guide students as they work collaboratively in varied roles producing work that will become part of a larger installation.
- Encourage experimentation, adaptation and modification of design motifs, as a path to individual learning and group process, which is protocol in Wabanaki teaching and learning.
King Middle School 8th grade students: “Chain Reaction: Trade Blanket Configuration”
This project provided students with a brief overview of Wabanaki history in Maine, as well as names of tribes past and present. The tradition of trade between Native and non-Native peoples is an important piece of history for all American Indian tribes, and shares with us the stories of how natural resources, hand made goods and mass-produced objects were valued between peoples of various cultures and regions. Blankets were a trade item in most US regions, and serve as part of a universal history to many tribes.
Students explored the many understandings of ‘blanket’, as an object of warmth and comfort. However, we also discussed the ways trade goods were utilized by Native peoples, as they were dislocated from their homes onto federally reserved lands. Blankets take on a new meaning once one is “homeless”. With these diverse meanings and connotations of trade blankets, students viewed many examples of blankets from past communities, and discussed the meanings of symbols and motifs within various blanket samples. Students then created a symbol that merged ideas of traditional Wabanaki design, such as the double curve, with contemporary themes that relate to their current aesthetic. Eight Groups of four students each, designed and arranged their symbols to create a collaborative blanket, that told both their individual and collective stories.
Poets and creative writers from The Telling Room, a creative writing center in Portland, assisted the students in writing about their current ideas of home, family, place and community in relation to their understanding of the trade era and Wabanaki dislocation. This text is expressed in print- accompanying the work and giving further context to the visual art, as well as in audio format as students vocalize their narratives with their own voice.
Portland High School (Art 1) students: "TREE, WATER, STONE: The landscapes of Home"
This project introduced student artists to pieces of traditional ecological knowledge of Wabanaki People, and worked to identify some of the main landscape features that shape, support and inform past and present Native cultures and visual aesthetics of Maine. Students were also introduced to Wabanaki legends and subsequently the idea that oral traditions, through stories, are closely linked with our ideas, understandings and traditions of landscape. Through this work, students gained insight and increased understanding of Wabanaki relationships with the land.
Students worked in small groups to select geographic and/or ecological elements based on their own ideas of what place and natural space meant to them as contemporary Mainers. They were asked to reproduce these landscape elements within different media, such as birch bark, granite stones, river currents, and mountains. These large landscape elements were then used to construct a collaborative landscape, in the effort to create a space that is both personal and individual to each students ‘place’ of reference, while at the same time familiar and universal scenes of Maine past and present.
What is Culturally Responsive Art Education?
Culturally responsive education recognizes, respects and uses student’s identities and backgrounds as meaningful sources for creating optimal learning environments. Culturally responsive curriculum works to validate the cultures and languages of all students and allows them to become co-constructors of knowledge in their school setting.
Many Hands embraced the multitude of communications in the classroom and focused on the exploration of art through the lens of cultural beliefs, family structure, heritage, tradition, social values and norms of the students and teachers. Visual arts and creative writing in the classroom, often allows alternative opportunities for students and teachers to communicate complicated and abstract themes, or creative ideas to one another.
Indigenous Pedagogical Models
Maliseet teaching artist, Mihku Paul modeled indigenous pedagogical strategies throughout the Many Hands project. At the core, Indigenous teaching practices entail a change in the teacher’s role from a monolithic teacher voice to a classroom where the relationship between teacher, student and curriculum is more dialogic and inquiry-based. These teaching and learning models clearly align with Wabanaki ways of education. Mihku facilitated two variations of well- researched Indigenous pedagogies; Apprenticeship model and what many Native scholars call joint productive activities.
The apprenticeship model pulls from the knowledge that in Indigenous culture, as well as many others, children traditionally learned through a process of observing skilled adults and then trying to accomplish what the adult demonstrated. Often parents or other teachers would engage children in trying small parts of an activity that they could accomplish. This first step, modeling, was traditionally done without much verbal description.
Joint productive activity is described as experts [teacher] and novices [student] working together for a common product or goal. In the classroom, this strategy means that the teacher works on the same problem or activity as the students. Joint productive activity can be thought of as an extension of the modeling strategy because, should students encounter difficulties working independently, they can return to observing the expert [teacher] working. Many Hands asked students to work with groups of their peers in order to work through the process of group problem solving, and decision making through consensus in order to complete their collaborative project. Mihku consistently positioned herself as a guide in problem solving, but deliberately left many questions unanswered in order for students to choose their own pathways and decided outcomes.
The art installations on exhibit: Chain Reaction: Trade Blanket Configuration; and Landscapes of Home, illustrate the hard work of Portland Public school students from King Middle School and Portland High School, and their teachers, Joseph Charnley and Peg Richards. Both students and teachers accepted and supported the challenge of this difficult, and multidimensional work. The students and teachers welcomed Mihku Paul and USM art education students into their spaces and worked respectfully, and with strong creative intent on their projects. Each installation shares the stories of these students from within the context of a school community, individual student identities and in recognition of embracing the many families of Maine.
 Indigenous pedagogy is a method of teaching and learning based on ideas of Indigenous Epistemologies of understanding. (see Brayboy 2005; Grande, 2004; Hermes 1998; Smith, 1999.
 Kagle, 2007; Lipka, Brenner & Sharp, 2005; Tharp, Estrada, Dalton & Yamauchi, 2001.
 DeHaan, 2002; Peacock, 1998; Rogoff, 1990.