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The Wabanaki people — the Penobscot Nation, the Passamaquoddy Tribe, the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians and the Mi’kmaq Nation — are part of Maine’s past, present and future. Information about their history and culture should be taught to Maine students for an accurate and fuller understanding of where we have been and where we are going together.
It is not a new and radical notion. It’s actually been Maine law for over 20 years.
Maine lawmakers, led by Donna Loring, the Penobscot Nation legislative representative at the time, passed a law in 2001 demanding that Native American studies in Maine be taught in state schools. This was based on the requirements that students had to learn American history and Maine studies.
Despite this fundamental and reasonable requirement, a new report from the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, the Wabanaki Alliance, and the Abbe Museum explains how the state and some school districts failed to implement and enforce this law for two decades. The report’s summary includes a quote from Loring explaining why the law was and is needed.
“[I]For Maine students to be better prepared to meet global challenges, they must first learn about the contributions of Maine’s original people and embrace diversity in their own communities and within their own state,” Loring said.
It’s hard to argue with that. This may be why lawmakers passed the law 21 years ago, and it’s also why the state and school districts must recommit to following it now.
“Despite periods of activity and interest, there has not been sustained and consistent effort and leadership from Maine entities, particularly the Department of Education, to implement the Wabanaki Studies Act. The result is that, twenty-one years after the passage, little of what the Wabanaki Studies Commission had hoped and planned to achieve has been achieved,” the report states.
The report, released on Indigenous Peoples Day, includes information on the legislative history and early implementation efforts of the Abenaki Studies Act. The report’s authors also obtained information about the current implementation of the law through Freedom of Access Law Requests to the Maine Department of Education (DOE) and a representative sample of 10 school districts.
“The overall conclusion of our investigation is that implementation has been uneven,” the report continues. “Some schools have demonstrated real success in developing and implementing curricula that meaningfully incorporate the history and perspectives of the Wabanaki culture. But other schools are doing little to meet the law’s requirements, and the state Department of Education hasn’t engaged in meaningful oversight to identify those school districts or enforce the law. ‘another way.
Importantly, the report also identifies steps to right these wrongs. These include re-establishing the Commission on Wabanaki Studies, the commission then working with the DOE on a sample wabanaki curriculum, updating Maine’s learning outcomes to include specific learning outcomes for Wabanaki Studies, holding school districts accountable for compliance with the Wabanaki Studies Act through review of comprehensive education plans and through engagement of community members, requiring Wabanaki Studies as part of teacher certification and in-service teacher training, and supporting educators with access to Wabanaki study materials at the state and school district level.
As the report and the participants in a October 10 online event Discussing the report, both noted that the DOE, under current Commissioner Pender Makin, has taken several steps, including holding a summit in 2021 with experts on Wabanaki studies. And according to the Portland Press Heralda spokesperson said the Maine Department of Education hired a Wabanaki educator to create more learning materials.
These are good steps, but the state needs to take meaningful steps to build on them through the recommendations made in this recent report.
At the local level, individual school districts have also demonstrated that meaningful compliance with the Abenaki Studies Act is possible. Portland, for example, worked with Wabanaki tribes and experts to update lesson plans. And if schools in Bangor can update their resources for grades K-5 and 6-8, as noted in the report, all districts should be able to do so – with increased guidance and leadership from the State, and a concerted effort to engage Wabanaki voices.
“I think the term ‘held accountable’ can sometimes be scary and threatening. But I want to emphasize that this report was not meant to be a “gotcha”. It was not done to blame anyone or put anyone on the defensive,” Penobscot Nation Ambassador Maulian Dana said at Monday’s event. “This report is a snapshot in time of the Abenaki Studies Act that is so important.
This conversation and the work that must follow is not about pointing fingers or rewriting history. It’s actually about teaching the history of all Maine people.