Emma Hargreaves

In Maine, industries based on our natural resources are deeply connected to the natural vitality we fight to protect. We are reliant on the land and water in myriad ways, and to live here requires that we make decisions based on multiple priorities.

Ever-polarizing political labels have never held the complicated concerns of Mainers. They don’t hold lived relationships with land for most Americans.

In order to protect our land and water — and the communities they support — Mainers need full access to our democracy. We need schools where students learn the power they have and the resources they rely on. Maine students need Wabanaki Studies.

The study of Wabanaki peoples’ relationships to power, resources, land and democracy through integrated curriculum about the history of the Wabanaki Confederacy have been required by law in every Maine public school since 2001. However, many schools and districts do not comply. Few include adequate curriculum about coalition and conflict between the tribes and Maine.

I call for compliance with required teaching and I reject an approach to the law that suggests white people do not benefit; Wabanaki Studies is the most relevant synthesis of American democratic values for all Maine students.

The one thing every student in a classroom shares is the local. At school, everyone relies on the same water source, walks upon the same ground, and breathes the same air; but they might not study these sites of connection in the classroom. Wabanaki Studies ensure that students explore place-based history, where the local “is not an abstraction… but a physical, actual material relationship to ‘an ecosystem present in a definable place,'” Lisa Brooks wrote in “The Common Pot: The Recovery of Native Space in the Northeast.”


In my Wabanaki Studies education on Marsh Island in Old Town, the local was the Penobscot River. Students began with what they shared with their community. The Penobscot Nation was our neighbor in the river, and thanks to Penobscot educators and required teaching, I knew what we had in common.

In Maine, we have at least 300 years of democratic activism by the Wabanaki Confederacy to thank for the continued protection of our watersheds, namely, the Penobscot River and her many tributaries and smaller rivers, like the Presumpscot, which hydrates most of the Portland Metropolitan area. And, it is compulsory for schools to teach the history of the Wabanaki Confederation and introduce students to indigenous relationships to place. 

Wabanaki Studies grapples with “the lovely and the difficult”. Cultural resilience — music and art, for example — and land stewardship, such as the coalition-driven Penobscot dam removals of the 2010s, are necessary because of longstanding threats to indigenous persons and land.

To navigate such material, the Portland Public Schools Wabanaki Studies curriculum asks, “What is the relationship between dams and the dispossession of Indigenous peoples?” and “What is the relationship between power and economics?” and “What are the relationships between empire building, genocide, and enslavement?” This approach is perhaps unexpected — it is difficult to grapple with stolen land and state sanctioned violence for students from all backgrounds — but it is only through awareness of the lovely and the difficult that a student can begin honest relationships with what is and has been here.

As a white person, I hold that Maine is my place and it is a stolen place. I had to see myself in these relationships of power in order to know where I am from. 

My father researches sustainable fuel solutions in a pilot plant alongside the Penobscot river. Before this, he spent 20 years working in Maine’s paper mills. He is proud of the hard work he, his grandfather and his grandfather’s father did in mills that sustained entire communities. He is committed to climate justice and remains proud of the logging tradition.


This duality is how my family taught me where I am from. I know from the sound of the Penobscot River after heavy rain and the smell of smoke stacks on overcast afternoons. Wabanaki Studies promotes awareness of people like my father — there are multiple ways to relate to where you are.  No experience is ubiquitous, and it is often easier to articulate one’s own position, independent of reductive political labels, in relation to others’. This ability to self-reflect, the very same that animates anti-racist and decolonial projects, empowers any student to advocate for their own interests. 

Complying with the Wabanaki Studies Law means more Mainers aware of their reliances on our watersheds and capable of protecting them. This requirement is for my father, myself and my future children. It’s for indigenous Mainers. It’s for New Mainers.

If we continue to disregard this mandatory teaching, it is all students who will lose. There is great potential for further democratic triumph, and all Maine students will benefit from Wabanaki Studies.

Emma Hargreaves is a pre-service history teacher and recent Bowdoin graduate from Old Town. She has spent the last year interviewing Wabanaki Studies teachers and proponents around the state, with research ranging from Portland Public Schools up to the University of Maine, Orono.

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