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Wabanaki Confederates bring tribal culture to University of Maine programs

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ORONO, Maine - School officials thought it was marijuana, or even worse - a fire hazard, when they smelled the smoke in the University of Maine dormitory. Instead it was a smudging ceremony, but the school ordered it stopped.

The five students who gathered weekly to purify themselves in the smoke of sage and sweetgrass didn't sit meekly at the ban, however. With the aid of the campus Wabanaki Center, they launched a campaign of education and last November won their point. As the school year starts at this red brick campus a stiff day's drive north of Boston, smudging will be allowed in dormitory rooms.

This victory is one of a series of steps bringing Maine's state university in closer contact with the still vital culture of its Native tribes. A remote northern location and relatively large population have helped preserve the language, customs and family traditions of the four tribes of the Wabanaki Confederation: the Passamaquoddy, Mailseet, Penobscot and Micmac. UMaine now offers an academic minor on Wabanaki culture and gives Indian students a tuition waiver.

The Wabanaki Center has doubled its staff to cope with supporting the 125 or so Indian students on campus. "A lot of Indian students who found the university strange for them are able to say the Wabanaki Center was there for them," said assistant director Sean O'Leary.

An Ojibwe, O'Leary came to Orono in the spring to help run the center while its director, Gail Sockabasin, was on leave. Sockabasin, a Passamaquoddy, has returned to campus after several years of travel as a Kellogg fellow studying the renewal of Native languages. She has launched her own, ambitious program to preserve Passamaquoddy, including a language CD and a traveling dramatic troupe.

On the academic side, Maureen Smith directs the Native American Studies program, which began offering a course concentration last November. An Oneida from Wisconsin, Smith is the only full-time professor in the program, but faculty in three other departments teach related courses. The program now has 10 declared minors, she said.

The program is still grappling with teaching a Native language, she said. "Some Native students feel it's better to be kept within the culture."

If a language course were offered by the state university, she noted, it would have to be open to all enrolled students.

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"There's also the question of what language you teach. Which of the four tribes do you choose?"

Although Sockabasin is a leader in reviving the Passamaquoddy language, three-fifths of the Indian students are Penobscot, O'Leary said. The remaining 50 come from the two Passamaquoddy reservations, the Houlton Band of the Maliseet and the Aroostook Band of the Micmac. "There is a handful of Canadian Indians and a handful from out of state."

All of these students are eligible for what O'Leary describes as an attractive tuition-waiver program. The tuition-free admission "is not only for enrolled Indigenous people. It's available up to two generations removed from the census rolls."

"I'm one-third Ojibwe," he said. "My children can come and my grandchildren probably as well can come tuition-free."

This program isn't simply a case of generosity, O'Leary said. The state is worried about a declining rate of high school graduation among Indian students. Because of this decline, "enrollment at the University of Maine is also dropping off. This is not good."

The Wabanaki Center is working with the staffs of Indian high schools to reverse the trend. It's also working with its own student body to keep people in college once they get there.

"A big retention issue is financial aid," O'Leary said. "With the tuition waiver, a student doesn't have a big financial bill hanging over his head.

"A person with a family crisis can go part-time, and he can come back full-time after the crisis has subsided."

The effort the school is putting into the Native American Program is bound to encourage Indian enrollment, O'Leary said. "In just the last three to four years, there's been a real dedication to the program. Things are really starting to take shape."