Superintendent's Notebook: Indigenous Peoples Day just 1st step in history lesson

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State lawmakers have approved a bill designating the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples Day, instead of Columbus Day, and it’s awaiting the governor’s signature.

As an educator and leader of Maine’s largest and most diverse school district, I applaud this change. It’s the right thing to do.

For too long, we have taught our students about the “discovery” of America only from the viewpoint of Columbus and European settlers, not from the perspective of those already living here. Native Americans faced disease, warfare and mistreatment as the result of Columbus’ arrival, and the impacts reverberate to this day. We need to acknowledge that and include the voices of indigenous peoples in the historical discussion.

The city of Portland – and the Portland Public Schools – have already joined other Maine communities making Indigenous Peoples Day part of the calendar. I hope the governor soon authorizes this change for Maine.

That is just a first step, however. Our school district is doing even more to help our students gain a comprehensive understanding of history, by developing a Wabanaki Studies curriculum.

Teaching about Maine’s indigenous peoples has been a state legal requirement since 2001. But with limited funding, the law isn’t consistently followed. We’re not adding Wabanaki Studies for compliance, but to help our students understand the history of Maine.

Donna Loring, a former Penobscot Tribal Council member and now the governor’s senior advisor on tribal affairs, helped draft the legislation on teaching about Maine’s indigenous peoples. In her book about being a tribal representative in Maine, titled “In the Shadow Of The Eagle,” Loring writes: “Let understanding and communication through education be the building blocks of a new tribal-state relationship, one that recognizes and honors the struggles and contributions of Native people.”

We are collaborating closely with tribal communities to ensure we develop a curriculum based on facts and truth telling. Recently, members of our academic team met with Maine tribal leaders at the Abbe Museum to discuss decolonizing curriculum content and pedagogical approaches to teaching about indigenous peoples.

Fiona Hopper, the district academic enrichment specialist leading the curriculum work, says “studying the colonization of Maine and the impact on native cultures through time is important so that our students can understand the foundational inequities on which our nation is built. As with all history, a study of the past can help us understand the present.”

The new curriculum will align with the goals of the Portland Promise, our district’s strategic plan, and be designed to help students develop critical thinking skills and foster cross-cultural understanding.

It also will help make our non-indigenous students more aware of our region’s complex history and the existence of Indigenous communities today, while helping our Wabanaki students and families feel their cultural identities are visible and valued.

We are working on establishing curriculum content and a timeline for a roll out. In the meantime, our work continues.

We’ll be hosting a community gathering for indigenous families on April 25, and we’ll continue with teacher professional development. This summer, for example, with help from a National Education Association Foundation grant, James Francis and Chris Sockalexis from the Penobscot Nation Office of Historic and Cultural Preservation will be leading 25 of our teachers in an overnight summer intensive to engage in Penobscot culture, learn from tribal leaders, and increase awareness and understanding of Indigenous peoples in Maine.

Our goal is to develop a thoughtful and accurate curriculum for our students that can also serve as a model for other Maine school districts.

Xavier Botana is superintendent of the Portland Public Schools. He can be reached at superintendent@portlandschools.org.

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