Portland schools to include Wabanaki studies

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PORTLAND — With hundreds of Native Americans marking last week’s Thanksgiving holiday with a day of mourning at Plymouth Rock, and President Trump arguing some tribes should no longer have protected status of their lands, the rights and grievances of indigenous peoples are attracting widespread attention.

Locally, the School Department is working toward implementing a Wabanaki studies program into the curriculum.

“We are in the beginning stages of the curriculum creation process,” Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana said this week. The overall goal, he said, is to “study the colonization of Maine and the impact on native cultures.”

Starr Kelly, curator of education at the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor, commended the Portland Public Schools for making a commitment to sharing the story of the Wabanaki with students, but said the effort has to be about “truth-telling” and “creating an inclusive system in which indigenous people are not overlooked” for it to be effective.

This is especially important when dealing with “difficult topics such as colonization and genocide (even) in places like Maine,” Kelly said.

The Abbe Museum is dedicated to preserving and sharing the history and cultures of the native peoples of Maine. It showcases the Wabanaki through a variety of exhibitions, special events, and workshops.

The Wabanaki or “People of the Dawnland,” consists of four nations – the Maliseet, Micmac, Penobscot and Passamaquoddy – according to the Abbe Museum website.

Kelly, a graduate of Portland High School, is a member of the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg indigenous community and said this week that “as a former student (of the Portland Public Schools,) I can tell you firsthand that the erasure of Wabanaki peoples in local schools is very real.”

For her, the lack of indigenous histories in the curriculum only serves “to uphold a settler/colonial” viewpoint. In addition, Kelly said the “silencing of native voices … legitimizes the myth that indigenous people no longer exist and federal and state governments no longer have to recognize native sovereignty.”

She said school districts can best approach indigenous content and Wabanaki studies “by working collaboratively with local tribal nations to create appropriate curriculum” that centers on indigenous perspectives of history in particular.

Kelly said, “it’s encouraging to see a district (like Portland) work towards widespread change” in this way. “In the state of Maine, I have only seen two other districts strive to do this work.”

Botana said the idea to incorporate Wabanaki studies in the Portland schools is part of the district’s focus on equity, one of four goals in its new strategic plan called the Portland Promise.

“The Wabanaki studies curriculum will (have an) emphasis on indigenous existence today and the 13,000-plus years indigenous peoples have lived in the area now called Maine.,” he said.

Botana said the new curriculum will have a specific focus “on the impact of settler colonialism, indigenous resistance movements, tribal sovereignty, diplomatic practices, treaty obligations and ecological sustainability.”

Overall, he said an effort would be made “to connect the impact of colonization in Maine to the impact of colonization worldwide, as many Portland students have moved from areas embroiled in conflicts resulting from (prior) colonization.”

Botana said “many wonderful curricular resources” have already been created by various groups and the goal will be to collaborate with social studies teachers, administrators and tribal leaders “to decide which resources are the best fit for the Portland Public Schools.”

Botana said there is no timeline in place for when the new curriculum would be rolled out to students, but the Wabanaki program will be key if “Maine is to become a welcoming, hospitable place for people of all racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds.”

For that to happen, he said, “students must begin by understanding the ways in which racialized violence has been practiced here and the ways in which that violence continues to impact Wabanaki communities today.”

In addition, Botana said, “There are Wabanaki and/or Native American students in many, if not most, Maine schools. Each of those students deserves an honest account of history, the opportunity to have their unique cultural identities seen and understood in their school communities and a sense of pride in who they are.”

“Our hope is that through a Wabanaki studies curriculum based on facts, focused on truth-telling, and created in collaboration with tribal communities, all Portland students will develop and hone their critical-thinking skills, (particularly) learning to ask pointed questions about power,” he said.

Hopefully, “their eyes will be open to the complex history of the region and the continued existence of indigenous communities today,” Botana said.

And, perhaps most importantly, the Wabanaki will begin to “feel that their cultural identities are visible and valued” and that the “years of invisibility in our schools and intentional cultural erasure in our state” are coming to an end.

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

The relevance and importance of the Wabanaki people to both the past and present in Maine have been overlooked for too long, according to Starr Kelly, curator of education at the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor. That’s why she’s happy the Portland Public Schools is planning to implement a new Wabanaki studies program.

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