A law passed by the Maine Legislature in 2001 – L.D. 291 – requires Maine public schools to teach Native American history and culture, but many schools still have not implemented it properly.

L.D. 291 identified what and how material should be taught in grades K-12, and created a Wabanaki Studies Commission to compile resources for Maine teachers and schools. Maine Native Studies resources and curriculum guides are now available on the Maine Department of Education website. Despite the abundance of resources available, however, Wabanaki studies are not being taught in all of Maine’s public schools almost 20 years after the law was passed.

As non-Indigenous students who received some K-12 education after 2001 in Maine, the four of us – the two authors, along with Gillian Kramer of Portland and Elizabeth Kovarsky of Westbrook, both also University of Southern Maine graduate students in social work – were not taught Wabanaki history and culture. A recent interview with a Portland Public Schools teacher made clear that prospective teachers educated in Maine are not made aware of L.D. 291 in their training, not to mention curricula that could be implemented in their classrooms.

Even when teachers are aware of the significant amount of material available to them and to the general public, school staff often do not know where to start to incorporate it into their teaching, explained Fiona Hopper, Portland Public Schools social studies teacher leader and Wabanaki studies coordinator, and Bridgid Neptune, community partner and citizen of the Passamaquoddy Tribe. As social workers interning in a variety of Maine school districts, we have yet to see the material being incorporated into K-12 curricula as promised. What is the protocol for holding individuals and schools accountable for the implementation of L.D. 291, or other state laws, for that matter? How does the public know that these bills are being followed once passed?

L.D. 291 was sponsored and guided through the legislative process by Penobscot Nation Rep. Donna Loring. The Wabanaki have been living on this land for over 12,000 years, yet awareness and understanding of their history and current culture are still minimal. This widespread ignorance leads to a lack of respect of the Wabanaki, and contributes to the overall discrimination and violence toward Indigenous people. There also continues to be a lack of acknowledgment of the cultural genocide that began during the start of colonization and that is still occurring today. Training teachers and requiring schools to teach Wabanaki studies will help increase understanding of and appreciation for the Wabanaki.

While Maine Native American history is not being taught in Maine’s schools as systematically as the law requires, one district, Portland Public Schools, is starting to follow through on the bill’s terms. A few key players – including Hopper, the Wabanaki studies coordinator, Neptune, the community partner and Passamaquoddy Tribe citizen, and Superintendent Xavier Botana – have found the sharing of the truth about the Wabanaki important enough to work toward implementing L.D. 291, even if it is gaining traction only 18 years after the bill passed. Wabanaki studies are starting to be incorporated into social studies classes, and a class for Portland educators, “Race in the United States,” appears to be highlighting the importance of L.D. 291 in understanding racism and its impact on education in the United States.

We recommend that other school districts follow the lead of Portland Public Schools, and urge Portland Public Schools to collaborate with lower-resource school districts to help these districts fulfill the requirements of L.D. 291. We also suggest that the Maine Department of Education prioritize the implementation of L.D. 291. Until this occurs, and more measures are taken to fulfill L.D. 291, a socially sanctioned ignorance toward Wabanaki and Indigenous people will continue. This itself is an act of oppression and contributes to violence toward Indigenous communities. While increased understanding and an end to systemic racism are needed in this country, we hope that Wabanaki history and culture are taught comprehensively in all of Maine’s schools sooner than later.

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