|Aroostook Republican photo/Natalie De La Garza
Hunter Learnard, at left, and Neil Soucy were among the Van Buren students enjoying ployes as part of the Cultural Fair in Van Buren on April 25.
By Natalie De La Garza
VAN BUREN — What started as an opportunity for the middle school Civil Rights Team at SAD 24 to explore diversity in The County turned into an exploration into heritage and culture for all students of the school.
With a call out throughout the region for cultural representation, four facets of Aroostook County took part in the school’s first Culture Fair — and the event’s success had students hoping that it becomes an annual occurrence.
Lindsey Gendreau is an eighth-grade member of the Civil Rights Team, and as the group’s unofficial spokesperson, she had no problem laying out the purpose of holding a Culture Fair.
“We thought it would be cool for other students to get a piece of the background of other students and their cultures, and we thought that they would enjoy seeing what other peoples’ cultures are,” Gendreau said.
“As a Civil Rights Team, we’re supposed to stop bias; there are a lot of biased behaviors and we’re supposed to be encouraging people to stop,” she explained. “We’re not a bullying program, but a lot of bullying somewhat goes along the lines of bias, so we’re trying to stop the biased bullying.”
There were two displays in particular that every student seemed to know something about — ployes and potatoes.
Bouchard Farms out of Fort Kent was unable to send a representative to the fair, but they instead sent plenty of supplies to keep Culture Fair Organizer Dana Laplante and her husband, Peter, busy all afternoon cooking ployes for hungry students — who each knew the best way to eat them.
“With butter and chicken stew,” said seventh-grader Makayla Guillette.
“With syrup, for breakfast,” said Lyndsey Levoie, also in seventh-grade.
Some liked molasses, some liked brown sugar and cinnamon, and most all liked ployes in general.
Another common County theme, a lot of students migrated to the familiar display about Aroostook County roots — potatoes, of course.
Food safety coordinator with LaJoie Farms Chris Cyr fielded questions students had about potatoes and the region, and the most common question the kids had was regarding an unfamiliar root mixed in with the potato display.
“My most common question today was what the candy striped beet was — some knew it was a beet, some thought it was a potato, they were just shocked at what it was,” he explained. One of LaJoie Farm’s biggest customers is Terra Chips, who buys the majority of the farm’s iconic blue potatoes.
“[Terra Chips] also chip’s beets, so there was a market for [beets] and we started growing beets too,” Cyr said.
Mostly, he talked with the kids about how things used to be done on a farm, with older tractors and handpicking, compared to how things are done on a farm now with newer technologies like harvesters.
“As you know, potatoes are a huge part of the area, so I think it stands as a big part of the culture up here,” Cyr said.
While most everyone knew potatoes and ployes, Laplante made sure to include two displays featuring the region’s iconic cultures — the Micmacs and the Acadians.
“Potatoes aren’t that new, and the ployes aren’t that new, but the Indian and the Acadian [cultures] are kind of new to me, so I learned some new thing,” said sixth-grader Chelsea Ouellette. “But the ployes, my parents make those at home,” she added.
Students didn’t get to spend tremendous amounts of time learning about the Micmac or Acadian cultures, but they did get a nice introduction.
The challenge for cultural director of the Aroostook Band of Micmacs John Dennis and Richard Lyness, assistant coordinator for the CMA 2014-Maine was squeezing in volumes of information into a two-minute presentation.
Lyness tailored his message to the different grade levels and talked more about the celebratory nature of the World Acadian Congress.
“[The World Acadian Congress] is going to be a 17-day cultural celebration — it’s going to be a festival of Acadian culture — of history, family reunions, community activities, and a lot of it is going to be happening right here in Van Buren,” Lyness explained. “I’m trying to impress on these kids that there are going to be thousands of people coming right through this community.”
The school’s guidance counselor Andrea Hallett explained that Acadian culture is just one interesting aspect of The St. John Valley.
“Acadian culture is so near and dear to these kids that this is a great opportunity for them to get little pieces of it prior to such an event as the World Acadian Congress, which is a great opportunity for families to get together and express their family culture,” she said. Her take-away from the event was that students enjoyed themselves immensely.
“We have such great volunteer speakers, and these presentations look amazing,” Hallett added.
Though a couple kids knew a bit about the region’s Acadian heritage, fewer knew about the Micmac’s cultural presence.
“The word Acadian actually comes from [the Micmac word] ‘ekati’ — it means ‘people living off the land’ and that was one of the original terms of the word ‘Acadian,’” Dennis described.
With so much history and so little time, Dennis smiled when asked how he even begins explaining the Micmac culture.
“I start with the easy parts,” he said, and the “easy parts” included where the Micmacs originated from, the districts of the people and some history — like petroglyphs, hieroglyphs and the rules of the family. Dennis also explained how the word “pow-wow” came into being and other fun facts like the medicine wheel.
“I learned that there’s a circle of life with them — the medicine wheel — and I thought it was pretty cool,” said Ouellette.
When students asked questions that were a little more complicated, Dennis worded his answers in a way that all the students would understand.
“When they asked questions about my language, I explained to them if ‘I were to speak from Micmac to English directly — it would sound like Yoda,’ and they understand,” he said, using the popular Star Wars character as an example of speech patterns. “Our Micmac language is like a river flow — it just flows — while English is more like a water pipe system, with a system it has to run through.”
Overall, Laplante believed the day was a success that she hopes will be continued next year.
“This was a big jumping off point for us, and I’m very happy at how today went,” she said. “We’ve got some good suggestions as to what we could add next year.”
If students take one thing away from the whole experience from the Cultural Fair, Gendreau hopes it’s this:
“I hope they learn that no matter what your culture is or your background or anything … it’s not only to make fun of people because of it,” she said. “That’s what this is all about.”