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Report: Many Maine schools 'do little' to follow 20-year-old law requiring Wabanaki studies

Robbie Feinberg
Maine Public
Roger Paul presents a training on Wabanaki language and history to a room of Portland teachers at Portland's Lincoln Middle School in Feb. 2019.

More than two decades after a landmark state law passed requiring Maine schools to teach Wabanaki studies, a new report finds the law has not been fully implemented and the state Department of Education has not enforced it.

The report recommends that the DOE work with a new Wabanaki Studies Commission to create model curriculum, that Wabanaki studies be required as part of teacher certification and that school districts be held accountable.

At a panel discussion streamed on Indigenous People's Day, Penobscot Nation Tribal Ambassador Maulian Dana said the report and the call for accountability wasn't intended as a "gotcha" moment or to blame anyone or to make anyone feel defensive.

"This report is a snapshot in time of the Wabanaki studies law," Dana said. "And some things are so crucial that we need to face the truth of things together. And truth isn't good or bad, it just is."

The report from the Abbe Museum, ACLU of Maine, Wabanaki Alliance and the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission makes the case that "most of the people of Maine have little awareness of the Wabanaki — the people who have been living here for 12,000 years." And the authors say that ignorance hurts Indigenous and non-Native students alike.

At the time of the law's passage, Rebecca Cole-Will, the curator of the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor, testified that the "single most common question our staff is asked by visitors is, 'Are there any Native Americans living in Maine today?'"

More recently, Lynn Mitchell, a Passamaquoddy educator and linguist described a recent experience guest teaching a 5th grade class in western Maine. According to the report, the students did not know Wabanaki people still existed in the state. And once Mitchell introduced them to the four Wabanaki tribes, some of the students asked if they still lived in teepees.

And Nolan Altvater, a student-teacher and Passamaquoddy citizen, described the frustration expressed by non-Native high school students after they learned about the region's rich Wabanaki history, something they had never been previously taught.

That history, along with Wabanaki economics, culture, government and the relationship of the tribes to local, state and national governments, is required to be taught in all Maine K-12 schools after the Wabanaki studies law was signed in 2001.

The bill's sponsor, former Penobscot Nation Rep. Donna Loring, said that education was necessary to ensure that first people's contributions are "understood and recognized" after decades of being confronted by systems like residential boarding schools designed to erase Indigenous perspectives.

"In order for Maine students to be better prepared to meet global challenges, they must first learn about the contributions of Maine's first people and accept diversity in their own communities and within their own state," Loring said.

The Wabanaki Studies Commission was created to ensure successful implementation of the law. Its members included representatives from the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, the Mi'kmaq Nation, the Penobscot Nation, the Passamaquoddy Tribe, education experts and representatives from the Department of Education. They were charged with coming up with a plan in 2003 to help school districts implement instruction in Maine Native American studies. They made multiple recommendations about resources, enforcement of the law and teacher training and even produced a supplemental report the following year. After that, the Commission was disbanded.

Last year marked the 20th anniversary of the implementation of the law. And to investigate how it was doing, the ACLU of Maine, the Wabanaki Alliance and the Abbe Museum sent Freedom of Access Act requests to the Maine Department of Education and ten school districts — the five largest, in Portland, Lewiston, Bangor, Oxford Hills and Auburn; and five neighboring tribal communities, in Eastport, Old Town, Houlton, Calais and Presque Isle.

"Some schools have shown real success in developing and implementing programs of study that meaningfully integrate the history and perspectives of Wabanaki culture," the report authors say. "But other schools do little to satisfy the requirements of the law, and the State Department of Education has not engaged in meaningful oversight to identify these school districts or otherwise enforce the law."

One school did not respond to the FOAA request and others admitted they did not implement the Wabanaki studies law in a systemic fashion. And according to the report, other schools often omitted "present day representation, leading to the twin problems of stereotyping and erasure of Indigenous people."

One exception is Portland, where public schools have collaborated with Wabanaki tribes and experts to reconfigure their curriculum. Another is Calais High School, which offers classes in the Passamaquoddy language to all students.

The report recommends reinstating the Wabanaki Studies Commission to guide oversight, make recommendations about curriculum and help shape teacher training. It also recommends that the DOE update Maine Learning Results with specific learning outcomes for areas of Wabanaki studies, including tribal sovereignty, and it suggests that the subject be required as part of teacher certification and continuing education.

"In the 21 years since enactment of the Wabanaki studies law, Wabanaki educators and other experts have offered a multitude of high-quality trainings in Wabanaki studies, many of which are accessible online," the report says. "Yet too many teachers lack the knowledge and skills necessary to teach Wabanaki studies."

To hold school districts accountable, the authors call on the state Board of Education and the Maine Department of Education to review education plans to ensure that schools are "meaningfully implementing the Wabanaki studies law."

Maine DOE spokesperson Marcus Mrowka said he had not yet seen the report and could not comment on it specifically. In general, Mrowka said what gets taught at the classroom level is a local decision. He said the Department does provide resources and materials to support educators in teaching Wabanaki culture and history.

In addition, Mrowka said DOE Commissioner Pender Makin in her first few months convened a working group of tribal leaders and Wabanaki scholars to update resources and supports for Maine schools.

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