In a fourth-grade class at Reiche Community School in Portland, teacher Zev Bliss calls on a student during a class on Wabanaki history this month. Even though a 2001 law mandated that Maine schools incorporate Wabanaki studies, efforts to do so have fallen short of what the law’s sponsors envisioned. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

In 2001, Maine passed a law requiring schools to teach the history, government and culture of the state’s Indigenous people. But in more than two decades since, many of those who pushed for the change say efforts to incorporate the Wabanaki experience into school classrooms have fallen far short of what they had hoped.

Now, a Portland educator who has been consulting extensively with Wabanaki historians is about to finalize the first draft of a K-12 curriculum that may bring those goals closer to reality.

Fiona Hopper, the Portland district’s Wabanaki studies coordinator and social studies teacher leader, started collaborating with Indigenous leaders in 2015 to create the state’s first Wabanaki curriculum, which not only includes lessons about all Maine’s Indigenous communities but incorporates Wabanaki studies into a wide range of subject areas and complies with state education standards.

Fiona Hopper, left, and Starr Kelly have been creating a K-12 Wabanaki studies curriculum for Portland Public Schools. Hopper is a social studies teacher leader and Wabanaki studies coordinator for the district, and Kelly works for the Children’s Museum and Theater of Maine and was the curator of education for the Abbe Museum for five years. Kelly is a member of the Algonquin First Nation of Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg in Quebec. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

She hopes to finish the first draft by May and – after a final review by Wabanaki consultants and teacher traininghave it in all the district’s  classrooms by the 2024-25 school year.

The district plans to share the curriculum statewide, but hasn’t yet nailed down how to do it.

The purpose of the curriculum is to promote understanding of and appreciation for the first people known to have lived in northeastern New England and Maritime Canada, people who have been here for over 12,000 years.


“So much has been erased about the original people of the nation and the state,” said Hopper.

Although some of Maine’s Indigenous communities have created lesson plans that teach about individual tribes, there is no comprehensive curriculum that touches on all of the Wabanaki communities, said Hopper.

Today there are around 8,000 Wabanaki in Maine, 96 percent fewer than when Europeans arrived in the 15th century. They make up 0.6 percent of the state’s population and four federally recognized tribes – Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Maliseet and Mi’kmaq.

Bridgid Neptune, a member of the Passamaquoddy tribe and a former Portland Public Schools parent, has been working with Hopper on the curriculum from the start. Neptune, a nurse practitioner, said she hopes teaching Maine students about the region’s first inhabitants and their contributions to society will help break down institutional racism and create more equity and respect for the Wabanaki.

“If  you look at American history books, there is all this stuff about non-native people and then there is one page about the Trail of Tears or something,” she said. “And you’re like, OK this is me, but it’s one page and our country has been inhabited by Native people since time immemorial.”

At Reiche in Portland, Bea Kumbida Silva, left, reads about Passamaquoddy history while Angela Mambo follows along in April. The Wabanaki make up 0.6 percent of the state’s population and four federally recognized tribes – Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Maliseet and Mi’kmaq. Maine is one of several states requiring Native American studies as part of curriculums. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

She said the message she gets from that is that Native people, her people, don’t matter.



When Hopper first started working on the curriculum, she didn’t realize that her project would become a large-scale, multi-year endeavor. But she soon realized that’s what it would take to to make Wabanaki studies a part of everyday school life.

She said some districts and teachers have tried two-week units of Wabanaki studies. Others hold a Wabanaki-focused day. But that’s missing the point.

The curriculum will outline how to weave Wabanaki studies into a variety of subjects, including economics, ecology and earth science.

Third-graders, for example, might learn about the Wabanaki through a combination social studies and science unit about the impact of dams on the Presumpscot River, which flows from Sebago Lake, through Portland, to the ocean. The students would learn about the ecology of the watershed, study the role of dams in the economy and learn about Native protests against the dams.



At Portland’s Reiche Elementary School, teacher Zev Bliss is already using a similar approach to tell Wabanaki stories as he teaches.

In a cluttered and colorful classroom at Reiche, more than a dozen fourth-graders sat recently in a large circle on a beige rug and looked toward Bliss, who was also seated, cross-legged, on the floor. The students were learning how to research – to recognize main ideas, pull out important details and take organized notes – through an article about the 1964 Gravel Pile Protest. During the peaceful protest, a group of Passamaquoddy stopped a white man from building a road on their land in Indian Township by organizing a sit-in around a pile of gravel that he planned to use to build a road bed. The pile of gravel, now a small mound grown over with grass, remains there today.

Bliss took a moment to ask his students what in their lives they would be willing to protest – even if it meant putting themselves in harm’s way. One responded that it would have to be something really important. She said she might put herself in harm’s way to protect her house, which she said contains everything she loves.

Bliss has been incorporating Wabanaki history and culture into his fourth-grade lessons all year, work he said has been challenging, but worth it.

“We’re on this land and we should know its history,” Bliss said.

In a fourth grade class at Reiche Community School in Portland, Zev Bliss assists students during a class about Wabanaki history. Even though a 2001 law mandated that Maine schools incorporate Wabanaki studies, there has been no large scale effort to do so until recently. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Bliss’ lesson illustrates one of the hallmarks of Hopper’s curriculum – introducing the Wabanaki naturally and regularly in many lessons. Another is to teach students about living Wabanaki people first and then move on to their history.


Neptune said sometimes when she visits schools to teach about the Wabanaki and tells students she is Passamaquoddy, they ask whether she lives in a tipi, or if she has a cellphone. They don’t know about modern-day Wabanaki contributions to society or about their current day issues – such as the ongoing fight for sovereignty.

“When you start in the past, it frames us as a primitive population,” Neptune said.

Starr Kelly, who works for the Children’s Museum in Portland and the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor, which focuses on Wabanaki history and culture, has gone to hundreds of Maine schools to teach about the Wabanaki and said students are often surprised to learn that Wabanaki people still live in Maine.

For their final essay this year, Bliss’ students will be asked to respond to the question: “What is the story of this place [Maine]?” or “What does it mean to be a citizen of the Dawnland (the region the Wabanaki are from)?”

The students have enjoyed learning about the Wabanaki, asking to learn more or making lists of all the facts they know, Bliss said.

“I like learning about how the Wabanaki people live and how it’s different than us, how they have different traditions like different dances and songs and things. They have this way of living they know and love,” said one of those students, Anna Krovel. “I also like learning about how they stood up for themselves against the Europeans and the Mohawk. I think they’re really cool and brave.”


Fourth-grader Josephine Henry-Shedlock said learning Wabanaki history has helped her think about how she treats others.

“When I read about how badly the Europeans treated the Wabanaki people, I thought they were really mean,” she said. “So I try not to treat people like that.”

Mayim Feinberg, a ninth-grader at Casco Bay High School whose pronouns are they and them, had a similar reaction to learning about Wabanaki history and culture in social studies, English and art classes. “I was surprised there was so much I didn’t know about the the experiences of people in what I call my home,” said Feinberg. 

Learning how many Wabanaki people had died at the hands of European settlers was shocking, they said.

“There were a lot of moments of oh my God, this really happened and no one talks about it,” said Feinberg.

Fourth grader Angela Mambo reads from a print out about Passamaquoddy history during a class. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer



Donna Loring sponsored the 2001 bill that required the history, culture and government of the Wabanaki people to be taught in Maine schools, both public and private. At the time, she served in the Legislature as a representative of the Penobscot Nation – and her reasons for pushing the bill were not just academic.

“If you marginalize people, you can just ignore them and not meet their needs,” Loring said. “I wanted to keep Wabanaki people on the radar so they wouldn’t be marginalized and abused.”

The law’s passage sparked a flurry of effort. A 15-member commission chosen by tribal leaders, the state commissioner of education and the chancellor of the University of Maine System was created to help schools implement the law. There were teacher trainings and people shared resources and curriculum materials, but then the commission dissolved and the work slowed.

Loring, who served as the senior tribal adviser to Gov. Janet Mills from early 2019 to late 2020, said she hopes that this generation of students will grow up with a knowledge of Wabanaki people that prior generations lack.

Maine is one of a handful of states that require Native American studies be incorporated into school curriculums. Some, like Maine, have passed requirements without money or enforcement. Others like Montana and Washington State, have funded and enforceable mandates.

The absence of funding and enforcement is at least partially responsible for the slow road to implementing Maine’s law.


“Getting that law passed was not easy – and to make a long story short, if there was a lot of money added to that bill it never would have passed,” Loring said.

She said she didn’t anticipate that Wabanaki history and culture would be quickly integrated into schools, but was planting a seed.

Others have found the sluggish pace more aggravating.

“A lot of us that have been involved have been frustrated by the pace of implementation,” said Darren Ranco, an associate professor of anthropology and the coordinator of Native American research at the University of Maine Orono. “Many of us had great hope for this law in the broad educational context in the state of Maine, but it has been frustrating to see it stall until the last couple of years when Portland Public Schools’ work started,” said Ranco, a citizen of the Penobscot Nation who has worked on the Portland curriculum.

And finishing the curriculum won’t be the end.

Teachers will need training to teach the material in accurate and culturally appropriate ways, and support to start to feel comfortable passing it on to their students.

“We want to make sure we don’t just have good materials but the way we implement them is aligned with our intentions,” said Melea Nalli, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning at Portland Public Schools. She said the district is still figuring out how best to do that.

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