Dev Bliss teaches a class on Wabanaki studies to a fourth-grade class at Reiche Community School in Portland in April 2022. A new report studying school curriculum on Wabanaki studies highlighted a project between Portland public schools and tribal historians to develop a district-wide curriculum. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

More than two decades after Maine required schools to teach the history, government and culture of the state’s Indigenous people, a new report found that the law is not meaningfully enforced and many districts have failed to consistently include Wabanaki studies in their curriculum.

The report was published Monday to mark Indigenous Peoples Day and is a collaboration between the Wabanaki Alliance, the Abbe Museum, the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine. They studied the curriculum in 10 school districts (five of the largest and five neighboring tribal communities).

The authors found some positive examples of Wabanaki studies. For example, Portland Public Schools is working with tribal historians to develop a curriculum that will eventually be rolled out across the district, and Calais High School offers classes in the Passamaquoddy language.

But the report also found that the lack of statewide enforcement or guidance means implementation is uneven and often lacking.

“Despite these successes, most schools that we evaluated failed to cover all of the areas required by the statute – including Wabanaki history, economic systems, political systems, and culture,” the report says. “One school offered no records at all, and another school admitted that it did not systemically include Wabanaki Studies into its curriculum. Many schools referred to Wabanaki peoples only in the past tense, focusing exclusively on the era of colonization, playing into the common and harmful misconception that Wabanaki people no longer exist.”

The report included eight recommendations for local and state leaders to fully implement the law.


The authors are calling for Maine to reinstate the Wabanaki Studies Commission, which was first formed in 2001 when the law was enacted. That group of tribal leaders, education experts and government stakeholders disbanded a few years later after publishing a series of reports about how to implement the new requirements.

Monday’s report says a new Wabanaki Studies Commission is needed to guide oversight, make recommendations about curriculum, and help shape teacher training. It also emphasized that the commission should be funded to pay Wabanaki people for their time and expertise.

The authors outlined a path for that commission to work with the state Department of Education on those proposals, which extend to creating more materials for teachers to use in lesson plans and updating state standards to include specific outcomes for Wabanaki studies.

They also called for Wabanaki studies to be required in teacher certification and continuing education courses. A spokeswoman for the University of Maine did not respond Monday to questions about those recommendations.

The report noted that the state organized a summit on Wabanaki studies last year, and Commissioner Pender Makin has formed a committee to “revive awareness of the law” and update resources for schools, but says those efforts didn’t go far enough.

“Nevertheless, these efforts by the Department fall short of implementing the law in the fashion envisioned by the Wabanaki Studies Commission,” the report says. “There is no statewide accountability or assessment. The Department generally does not compensate experts in Wabanaki Studies for their time and input. While the Department has a website that provides resources for teachers, many of the links are broken. More is needed to achieve the important purposes of the Wabanaki Studies law.”


A spokesman said the state education department has hired a Wabanaki educator to create more learning modules and highlighted steps to update resources for Maine teachers. But he did not respond to specific questions about what steps the department will take to meet the report’s other recommendations.

The Wabanaki Studies Law was passed in 2001. 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.

The report said widespread ignorance about Wabanaki people contributes to stereotypes and the erasure of contemporary tribal communities. In one anecdote, Lynn Mitchell, a Passamaquoddy teacher and linguist, was speaking to a class of fifth-grade students in western Maine who did not know Wabanaki people still existed in the state. When they learned about the four tribes, some asked if Wabanaki people still lived in teepees. Nolan Altvater, a student-teacher and Passamaquoddy citizen, said non-native high school students expressed frustration when they learned about Wabanaki history for the first time.

“They were frustrated by the incomplete version of state and national history that omitted meaningful reference to Wabanaki perspectives,” the report says. “According to Altvater, when students learned about Wabanaki history, both Native and non-Native students expressed excitement at feeling closer to the history of this place we now call Maine.”

During a panel discussion Monday, representatives from the groups that worked on the report also saw a relationship between increased awareness of Wabanki people and the ongoing fight for tribal sovereignty in Maine.

“If there’s Wabanaki education, Wabanaki sovereignty would be a no-brainer,” said James Eric Francis, director of the Penobscot Nation Cultural and Historic Preservation Department and member of the Abbe Museum Wabanaki Council.

“That really is the bottom line,” said Maulian Dana, Penobscot Nation Ambassador and president of the Wabanaki Alliance.

“Once you understand those roots, you can wrap your mind around our current struggle, and you can see that our seeking to be treated equally isn’t based in a power grab, it isn’t based in revenge, it isn’t something to be feared,” she added. “It’s based on undoing a lot of this wrongness in history.”

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