Bangor High School will pilot a one-semester Wabanaki language, history and culture course this spring, after recruiting a member of the Aroostook Band of Mi’kmaqs with expertise in teaching endangered Native languages to teach the course.

The course will start a few months after a report from Wabanaki leaders and civil rights advocates revealed many Maine schools fail to teach Wabanaki history as required by a 2001 state law.

The elective course, however, has been about a year in the making and wasn’t created in response to the report, Bangor School Department Superintendent James Tager said. The report took school districts to task for not consistently including Wabanaki studies in their curriculum and the state Department of Education for not enforcing the requirement.

“It’s time, and I think it’ll be a very positive thing for our students,” Tager said. “I would like to see it become a full language course at some point.” 

A community member proposed piloting a Wabanaki language course a year ago, and school staff got to work piecing a pilot course together, said Marisue Schuiling, head of the school’s world language department. 

“The idea was born of the question, ‘Why don’t we offer a Wabanaki language in our world languages department?’” Schuiling said. “My answer was simply, ‘I don’t know, but let’s try.’”

School leaders found John Dennis of Presque Isle, a member of the Aroostook Band of Mi’kmaqs, to teach the course via Zoom as an adjunct instructor. Dennis recently completed a two-year master’s program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that’s designed to help people preserve and teach their endangered Native languages to others, Bangor High School Principal Paul Butler said. 

Students will receive instruction in the Mi’kmaq language.

“The ultimate goal is keeping language alive and giving an opportunity to enrich ourselves and our students,” Butler said. “We’re in such a rich area for Native languages that we decided it was time.” 

The October report from the Wabanaki Alliance, American Civil Liberties Union, Abbe Museum and Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission slammed some Maine schools for failing to obey the 21-year-old law that requires Wabanaki history be taught. 

Or, the report said, if schools do teach Wabanaki history, some perpetuate harmful stereotypes.

The groups credited Bangor schools for recognizing that the Wabanaki tribes not only were “the first group of people” who inhabited Maine, but also continue to live in the state — an area where other Maine schools failed. 

They also acknowledged Bangor schools in the report for providing updated Wabanaki curriculum resources for students in elementary and middle school. 

While the report determined Bangor schools had some successes in teaching Wabanaki studies, it also had some criticism for the city’s school department.

One Bangor school assignment, for example, asked students to make a Venn diagram “comparing and contrasting your life with the Wabanaki.” The groups criticized that assignment for being nonsensical for any Wabanaki students in the classroom and building an us-versus-them mentality while erasing modern-day Wabanaki peoples. 

Educational materials a Bangor school used were also critiqued for depicting stereotypical images of Indigenous peoples, homes and attire. 

School committee member Ben Sprague said he has seen more evidence of Wabanaki studies being taught to younger grades in Bangor, especially last month, which was Native American Heritage Month. 

“They’ve had guest speakers, and it was really enriching for them in a way that I don’t remember getting when I was a kid in school,” Sprague said. 

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Kathleen O'Brien

Kathleen O'Brien is a reporter covering the Bangor area. Born and raised in Portland, she joined the Bangor Daily News in 2022 after working as a Bath-area reporter at The Times Record. She graduated from...