Wabanaki Culture and History:
Maine’s Commitment to Native American Studies
A conversation about LD291 with Maria Girouard, Past Director of Penobscot Nation Cultural and Historic Preservation, Dr. Donald Soctomah, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer of the Passamaquoddy Tribe, and Dr. Lisa Brooks, Libra Scholar
The conversation about LD291 which took place on February 28th focused on the logistics of representing Native histories from an educator’s perspective, but several of the talking points can be directly applied to our department’s ongoing investigation of Native voices. LD291 is a bill which was enacted by Maine’s 120th congressional body and which took effect in September of 2001. This piece of legislation articulates Maine’s commitment to Native studies, and the expectation that our kids will learn about Native histories through academic discourse instead of discursive media. The various difficulties which this law has encountered since its enactment are intimately connected to the problems that we have confronted and discussed while reading the works of William Yellow Robe Jr, Sherman Alexie, Cheryl Savageau, etc.
The investigation of authentic Native narratives is obstructed by the preconceived misconceptions which we as readers, students, and cultural participants carry into the classroom. Native authors struggle with these stereotypes alongside us, often resulting in the conflicted and tragic moods which characterize so many Native texts. As a reader I’ve come to recognize and enjoy the aesthetics of Native storytellers: words like wells that seemingly have no bottom, invigorating metaphors, and that wonderfully dry sense of humor which only a lifetime of strife and frustration can produce. As a student, I’ve benefited from these texts in another way. When we consider that these authors are in the process of reclaiming their heritage after centuries of both explicit and unseen hegemonic attacks, their narratives become inherently political. By voicing their experiences they simultaneously advocate for a new cultural understanding. These authors imbue their subordinate readers with authentic visions of Native life, every word helping to eradicate the offensive myths that have been perpetuated by predominately non-Native media professionals. This educative, dialogic process is exactly what LD291 is all about.
The advantage of LD291 is almost paradoxical. It is only by working with the popular belief that Native Americans are an extinct culture that their stories have made their way into Maine’s history classes. At the same time, it is through this historical exploration that they hope to kill old stereotypes and perpetuate a new awareness and appreciation for Maine’s indigenous tribes. LD291 is all about attacking ignorance. Doctor Donald Soctomah said as much when he explained the reasoning behind introducing LD291. By “starting young” and teaching Wabanaki histories in grade school, we can come closer to controlling whose stories are told and what meanings are circulated. The issue which was discussed in great detail by Dr. Brooks, Dr. Soctomah, and Maria Girouard was not an issue of motivation but of method. How do we teach Wabanaki continuance through histories? How can teachers without prior knowledge of those histories find appropriate texts and emphasize them in the appropriate ways? Implementing a large-scale cultural awareness curriculum on a state largely bereft of cultural perspective presents a problem which is difficult to resolve – echoing one of the prominent themes of Native American literature.
For more information on upcoming events in the Living Language series at UMF, see Mantor Library’s Living Language Webguide.