A statewide report this fall praised the Portland Public Schools as an exception to the report’s conclusion that most Maine schools have not complied with a landmark 2001 state law requiring Wabanaki studies to be incorporated into the curriculum. “There are some successes, including Portland Public Schools, which have collaborated with Wabanaki tribes and experts to reconfigure their curriculum with Wabanaki studies at the core,” stated the report, a collaborative effort between the Wabanaki Alliance, the Abbe Museum, the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine.

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

A team of PPS teachers has been working with tribal advisors, students, parents and community partners to build a preK-12 Wabanaki studies curriculum that weaves Wabanaki studies into varied subjects. The curriculum is being piloted this year, and is slated to be in all elementary classrooms in the 2023-2024 school year and all middle and high school social studies classes in 2024-2025. Meanwhile, learning about the “People of the Dawnland,” as the state’s Indigenous peoples are collectively known, is already underway in many classrooms.

On Dec. 20, some of those students are combining that learning in a unique project in which Casco Bay High School ninth-graders read their original children’s books about Wabanaki Studies to third-graders at Talbot Community School and third- and fifth-graders at Ocean Avenue Elementary School, who also have been engaged in Wabanaki studies. Matt Bernstein, a CBHS social studies teacher, said, “We are eager to connect and discuss Wabanaki history and culture with our fellow PPS learners.”

Bernstein, recently named 2023 Maine Teacher of the Year, said the children’s book project is the culmination of the “We Are On Indigenous Land” expedition at CBHS. The expedition is designed to spread more accurate and truthful information about the history and present of the land now known as Maine and the experiences of Indigenous peoples in this region.

All CBHS ninth-graders have studied Wabanaki history and culture for several months. “We have used a range of sources to unpack past and present Wabanaki experiences in Maine, we have dived deeply into understanding Wabanaki life before and after European settler colonists arrived and the ways that Wabanaki peoples have been systematically marginalized and oppressed since the arrival of settler colonists,” Bernstein said. “We have also celebrated the resistance, perseverance and contributions of Wabanaki peoples in the face of inequity and attempted genocide.”

After building background knowledge, students chose a topic for deeper study. They researched their topic, analyzed professional children’s books and created storyboards. “Each student has created their own original children’s book about their topic,” Bernstein said. “Their goal is to use these books to contribute to the awesome ongoing Wabanaki studies learning happening in PPS elementary schools.”


The books include “The Ways We See the World” by Reme Isgro, which focuses on unpacking the differences between common Wabanaki and settler colonist worldviews. Another book, “Erase,” by Aimen Ismail, focuses on the removal of Indigenous children from their homes to place them in residential schools and the foster system.

Jes Ellis, Talbot School third-grade teacher, believes the reading session with the ninth-graders will enhance her students’ learning.

The district’s third-graders have been participating in the first Wabanaki Studies unit designed by district and tribal leaders. Ellis said the learning has centered around the role of the Presumpscot River in local ecology and history, emphasizing Wabanaki relationships with the environment. Students read books, looked at original sources and investigated the role and impact of dams on rivers and fish populations, she said.

Now that her students have built their own background knowledge, Ellis said, “I am excited to see how our students connect with the work of the Casco Bay students.”

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