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New bill would strengthen decades-old law requiring Wabanaki history to be taught in schools

Roger Paul presents a training on Wabanaki language and history to a room of Portland teachers at Portland's Lincoln Middle School in Feb. 2019.
Robbie Feinberg
Maine Public
Roger Paul presents a training on Wabanaki language and history to a room of Portland teachers at Portland's Lincoln Middle School in Feb. 2019.

A bipartisan coalition of state lawmakers wants to strengthen a decades-old law that requires Wabanaki history to be taught in Maine schools.

The landmark state law passed more than two decades ago mandates that Maine schools teach Wabanaki history, economics and culture. But a report issued two years ago found the law had never been fully implemented and that the Maine Department of Education largely did not enforce it.

"The groundwork has been laid for including Wabanaki studies in the Maine studies curriculum. The failure to implement may be mainly attributable to the lack of follow-up and oversight," said Jill Tompkins, a member of the Penobscot Nation and the executive director of the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission, which was a co-author of the 2022 report.

Tompkins said a new bill would give schools the push they need by permanently reestablishing the Wabanaki Studies Commission. It also directs the Maine Department of Education to create and fund a training program for teachers on Wabanaki history and culture. The department would review Wabanaki studies curriculum from a sampling of Maine schools every five years.

"Education about our people will ensure that Wabanaki students feel more safe, worthy and capable than I did in high school," said Penobscot Nation tribal ambassador Maulian Bryant, who attended school when the 2001 law was in its early days. She said she was hopeful that the new law would better educate her peers, but still, she heard claims that there were no indigenous people in Maine.

Some school districts have since embedded Wabanaki history into their curriculum. But Bryant said the new bill is necessary to improve on the original vision detailed in the 2001 law.

"This doesn't just help our students; it helps all students in Maine," she added.

Nearly all of Maine's legislative leaders, including House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, Minority Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham and Senate President Troy Jackson, are cosponsors of the bill.

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