A native spin on the ABCs

Posted Oct. 28, 2008, at 7:32 p.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 5:55 a.m.

INDIAN ISLAND, Maine — A is for ash tree, alewives and arrowheads. B is for birch bark, blueberries and baskets. C is for crooked knife, caribou and canoe.

Teachers at the Penobscot Nation know there’s more to learning the ABCs than apples, baseballs and cats. Now, along with a statewide coalition of partners, the tribe is setting out to ensure that every public school student in Maine is encouraged to think more broadly about the world. In addition, the Penobscots and their project partners are helping Maine teachers and the school districts they work for comply with a recent state law and an addendum to Maine Learning Results.

At a daylong workshop on Indian Island on Tuesday, a dozen teachers from schools in Bar Harbor, Skowhegan, Jonesport and beyond got their hands on some new classroom resources aimed at broadening students’ understanding of American Indian history and culture. They also got a quick review of tribal government, language, economics, arts, medicine and more.

Presenter James Francis, director of the Penobscot Nation Cultural and Historic Preservation Department, provided background on LD 291, An Act to Require Teaching of Maine Native American History and Culture in Maine’s Schools. Sponsored by then-Rep. Donna Loring of the Penobscot Nation, the law was enacted in 2001.

Francis explained that the need for the statute became apparent during the legislative debate over a proposal to eliminate use of the word “squaw” in public place-names. Loring and her colleague Rep. Donald Soctomah of the Passamoquoddy Tribe “found they spent an awful lot of time educating legislators about Native American history and culture,” Francis said. LD 291 was designed to counteract social ignorance about Maine’s four native tribes, the Penobscot Nation, the Passamoquoddy Tribe of Indians, the Aroostook Band of Micmacs and the Houlton Band of Maliseets. Together, the four tribes make up the Wabanaki Confederacy.

Last year, the Maine Learning Results — the statewide standard for teaching content and outcomes — were revised to require incorporation of Maine Indian history and culture in classroom curricula.

Since 2001, the 15-member Wabanaki Studies Commission has been working with educators to develop intensive programs for Maine teachers, including a special summer institute on Wabanaki studies at the University of Maine and a shorter program at the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor.

More recently, the Penobscot Nation in partnership with the Maine Department of Education, the Old Town School District, the University of Maine, the Abbe Museum, and a host of “tribal resource specialists” with expertise in drumming, basket making, the use of medicinal plants and other cultural traditions — has put together a 12-unit collection of age-appropriate curricula and teaching materials.

Topics range from Indian place-names to the performing arts, from Penobscots in the military to the economic and social impacts of the bridge that now connects Indian Island to the mainland. Other subjects include the historic Maine Indian Claims Land Settlement Act, the presence of inaccuracies and stereotypes in literature, and the effort to preserve and revive the Penobscot language. Each unit recommends related teaching materials, including maps, posters, videos and other resources.

For second-grade teacher Regina Costlow of Veazie, the workshop offered an important opportunity to obtain materials to engage her young students. “It’s been a problem to find age-appropriate, teacher-friendly materials,” she said. Costlow purchased a set of colorful, laminated 8-by-11 alphabet cards to hang on her classroom wall.

Sixth-grade teacher Tricia Pfluger from Waterville said she was inspired by Francis’ presentation on Penobscot family and community traditions. She said it would be an interesting assignment for her middle school students to make a comparison of their own cultural behavior and the tribal traditions that have sustained American Indian communities for generations.

High school teacher Nancy Kelly of Augusta, who also supervises the English as a Second Language program in Augusta schools, said the workshop helped her identify some cultural values shared among native peoples of the world, including Cambodian families in the Augusta area and Somalis in Lewiston.

“The family is stronger,” she said. “Taking care of the elderly is something that is done regularly.”

The workshop included lunch and a guided “medicine walk” along a newly constructed boardwalk through the woods. A second presentation, identical to Tuesday’s event, will be offered Wednesday, Nov. 5, on Indian Island. The workshop fee is $25 per person, which includes lunch. Space is limited. To preregister or for more information, e-mail penobscotresources@yahoo.com or call 817-7477.

More information about the work of the Wabanaki Studies Commission, as well as some study units and supporting materials, is available online at www.umaine.edu/LD291. Additional resources are being developed by the Penobscot Nation and will be available by January 2009 at a different, subscription-based site now under development.

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