Maine conference explores teaching Wabanaki history

BIDDEFORD, Maine – The University of New England celebrated Donna Loring, a writer, educator, activist and the Penobscot Indian Nation’s former representative in the Maine legislature in early October with the first of a lecture series in her name and a conference about teaching Wabanaki history in Maine’s public schools.

The Maine Women Writers Collection at the UNE held the inaugural Donna M. Loring Lecture on Oct. 1 at noon and later the conference was held live and online, drawing an international audience of more than 600 people who signed onto the site.

Earlier this year, Loring donated her papers to the MWWC collection, including the manuscript of her 2008 book “In the Shadow of the Eagle: A Tribal Representative in Maine.”

The collection houses the papers of women writers who were born or lived in Maine and includes former poet laureate Louise Bogan; marine biologist and nature writer Rachel Carson, who is credited with launching the global environmental movement with her 1962 book “Silent Spring;” novelist and short story writer Sarah Orne Jewett, who wrote painterly novels and essays about southern Maine at the turn of the 19th century; and Pulitzer prize-winning novelist Annie E. Proulx, author of “The Shipping News.”

As part of the Loring collection, the MWWC also decided to develop and present a yearly Donna M. Loring Lecture that will address current or historic American Indian or aboriginal issues, civil rights, indigenous rights, women’s issues, and issues of fairness and equality.

The inaugural lecture was called “Red Hope: Weaving Waponahki Policy toward Decolonization” and was presented by Rebecca Sockbeson, Loring’s niece.

Sockbeson, Penobscot, is the eighth child of Elizabeth Sockbeson. She is completing her Ph.D. in Education Policy at the University of Alberta and obtained her master’s degree in education from Harvard University. She studies the capacity of education to remedy the racism that still afflicts Native American communities today.

“It was awesome,” Loring said about her niece’s lecture. “The whole day was special for me. It was my birthday and not only did Rebecca fly in the day before from Alberta, but also two of my great nieces were there and they presented me with a Red Power ribbon shirt.”

In the afternoon, Loring, Sockbeson, and elementary school teacher Joseph Chandler talked in the conference about teaching Wabanaki history and culture in the state’s public schools. The Maliseet, Micmac, Passamaquoddy, and Penobscot nations have lived in the northeast for thousands of years, yet because of early colonization, dispossession, repression, and draconian state laws that eroded the nations’ sovereignty, the Wabanaki people until recently have remained “hidden in plain sight.”

In 2001, Loring wrote and introduced – and the Maine legislature passed – a law called Legislative Document 291: An Act to Require Teaching of Maine Native American History and Culture in Maine’s Schools.

During the conference, Loring described the law’s specificity.

“You’ll hear that there are requirements that Indian history be taught in other states, but this particular law is unique because there are four specific topics to be studied: Tribal government and political systems and their relationship to local, state, national and international governments; Maine Native American cultural systems and the experience of Maine Native people throughout history; Maine Native American territories; and Maine Native American economic systems.”

Loring said she drafted the topics to be general so they can be “taken apart and plugged into any grade level,” providing teachers with the flexibility to incorporate topics into any part of the curriculum in any subject, such as social studies, economics, or literature in kindergarten through grade 12.

The most important part of the law was the creation of the Native American History Commission to help schools gather a wide range of materials and resources to help implement the law, Loring said.

“I asked people in other states with laws requiring the teaching of Indian history why they weren’t doing it and they said they had no materials. That’s why the history commission was very important. It led to the creation of the Wabanaki Education Curriculum which tells the story of the Wabanaki people from the Wabanaki perspective. It’s leading us out of the dark ages.”

Chandler, who is from Portland, described how LD 291 is being implemented in his school system. He has been invaluable in collected materials for teachers to use.

“I started looking for resources after LD 291 was passed, but found very little, so I kept digging and asking questions and gathering materials. In the last few years there has been quite a renaissance, and now I can put out two tables of resources for teachers to look at, books and videos and other types of resources.”

The schools are being asked to implement the law without any additional funding, but there are plenty of materials available online, Chandler said.

Loring is often asked if she is frustrated at the snail’s pace of the implementation of LD 291.

“The bill’s been around for eight years. My response is always, no, as long as it’s going along even very slowly, that’s a plus.”