November is National Native American Heritage Month, and the prevalence and efforts of the Native American community at Bowdoin are greater than ever before. Certain groups and individuals have been working particularly hard to organize different events that will bring awareness to Native American affairs and celebrate Native American culture.
One such event sponsored by the Bowdoin Department of Education in conjunction with the Native American Student Association (NASA) was John Bear Mitchell's lecture last night, "Putting Wabanaki History and Culture in Maine's Classrooms: Update on the LD 291 Initiative."
Mitchell, a professor at the University of Maine-Orono, a member of the Wabanaki Education Committee, and himself a member of the native Maine Penobscot tribe and the Bear clan, spoke about the law passed in 2001 stipulating that Wabanaki (a term referring to the land occupied by the four prevalent tribes in Maine) culture be taught in Maine public schools at all age levels.
Mitchell began by recounting his own experience in elementary school, explaining the hardships of language and culture barriers.
"They thought I was illiterate because I got the languages mixed up," said Mitchell. "The teachers and the students did not understand where I came from."
Mitchell described the lack of knowledge of the Wabanaki "really sad." He expressed his wish for students to overcome this sense of ignorance.
"I realized that students need to graduate knowing something about the Native American history of their state. Especially in a state like Maine where there are Native landmarks everywhere you look."
The 2001 law changed the Maine Studies Law to include Native American History as a mandatory part of public schools' curriculums.
"Students need to learn about our past so that they can understand contemporary issues," said Mitchell.
Mitchell's lecture was eagerly anticipated and well-received by students, faculty, staff and community members.
"The lecture was an imperative addition to our program as we work to explore Native American issues this month," said Leslie Shaw, a visiting assistant professor in anthropology and sociology and the liaison between NASA and the President's Office.
"I have been interested in Mr. Mitchell since I first heard about his work with schools in the area. His personal stories help to answer the question of why this law should be taken seriously."
Shaw's interest in this topic stems from her own involvement in the Wabanoki Bates-Bowdoin-Colby Initiative Agreement. The Agreement was started in 2007 as the presidents of Bates, Bowdoin and Colby formed a partnership with the leaders of the native Maine tribes of the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Micmac and Maliseet.
"Leaders from the tribes approached the administrations of the three colleges asking for support," explained Shaw.
"Bowdoin has been attracting more Native students, supporting student organizations, and hosting different speakers and events," she added.
President Barry Mills has been especially supportive of this effort. His office has provided much of the funding for these events.
"President Mills also had a Penobscot elder come give the opening prayer at graduation in 2009," said Shaw. "These are all just small steps, but they are important. They make a huge difference as far as our relationship with local Native communities."
These efforts speak to Mitchell's message of not only teaching Native American History, but also keeping students aware of contemporary Native American issues.
"Every state has Native peoples and so every state, whether they are conscious of it or not, deals with Native American rights," said Shaw. "It is important that students are aware of this."
The students involved in NASA are particularly aware of these issues and have formed a group that offers support to Native students, organizes events that teach Native American culture, and helps to spread information.
"It was really Rachel [Bryan-Auker '10] and Olivia [Moore '09] who started NASA," said current co-leader of NASA Jessie Kohn '13. "None of us knew who the Native students were beforehand, but we all received an e-mail and from there we were able to contact one another."
"It started as more of a support group than anything else," added co-leader Arielle Gilmore '11.
Since then, NASA has grown substantially and the group's efforts have yielded results in the admissions office.
"Last year Rachel worked with the admissions office to try to bring in more Native students," explained NASA member Chantal Crawley '10. "This past year was impressive: 129 applied and 44 were admitted."
The members of NASA agreed with Mitchell's hope to enforce the LD 291 Initiative.
"I wish the Maine law were a national law," said Gilmore. "I'm from Philadelphia, and I remember Native American history being taught in 10 minutes."
"One of the problems is that it's taught as history and not [as an] ongoing process," said Kohn. "People need to realize that all over the country, and on the East Coast especially, there is a very vibrant culture that still exists today."
NASA's efforts emulate the stipulations of LD 291 in that the group's primary concern is passing on information and raising awareness.
"We're trying to bring awareness to the campus," said Gilmore, "because faculty and students are generally supportive, but they also often ignore issues that are important to us."
"A lot of my peers don't realize when they are being offensive," said Crawley.
But just because many students are uninformed does not mean they cannot become involved with and learn from NASA's initiatives.
"NASA is not about exclusivity," said Gilmore. "We want people to come to our meetings who are truly interested in learning about Native American culture."
Gilmore's sentiments echoed Mitchell's closing remarks regarding Native people living in contemporary society.
"We are spaghetti-eating, movie-watching, popcorn-popping people just like anyone else," he said. "We're everyday people; we just have a strong connection to our past—a past that should be studied and recognized."