The Wabanaki Fight for Fair Education
This past spring break, seven other Colby students and I traveled to the Maliseet, Penobscot, Micmac and Passamaquoddy Indian Tribes of the Maine Wabanaki Confederation. We spoke at reservation schools and community centers to students between 4th and 8th grade about life at Colby and the importance of a college education. The program is a part of the Wabanaki, Bates, Bowdoin and Colby (WBBC) Collaborative and is intended to increase the number of American Indian students attending college and to likewise educate college students about the rich indigenous cultures of Maine. To say the least, the experience was incredibly powerful and left me with more questions than answers as to why American Indians have been so underrepresented at some of Maine's best colleges.
Mike Chadwick, the principal of the Passamaquoddy (People of the Dawn) Beatrice Rafferty Middle School, explained to us the numerous factors acting against his students. Many of his middle school students view school as a place of security, if not as a second family, and the school boasts a 100 percent retention rate until 8th Grade. This is an amazing accomplishment considering the daunting statistics: approximately 97 percent of his middle school students live below the poverty line and the unemployment rate in the area is around 70 percent, with average annual incomes as low as $5,000. Furthermore, as with many poverty stricken areas, drug and alcohol abuse has become a serious problem. However, within Passamaquoddy, the faculty members have created a stable environment in which students are nurtured.
Unfortunately, once the students leave the reservation to attend public high schools, the story is very different. The safety net of community is no longer there and Chadwick noted that he is thrilled if he can get a few students to graduate every year.
I can assure you that the Wabanaki students we visited should absolutely be graduating from high school and college--these kids are brilliant. Besides teaching the students about college and life at Colby, we integrated a chemistry lesson about the pH scale into our lesson plan, complete with pH meters and litmus paper tests. I spoke with a 4th grade boy at the end of class one day and asked him, " So, 'Gregory,' can you tell me whether Windex is an acid or a base?" He replied "Oh yeah, it is a strong base because it turned the litmus paper dark green, so it is strongly alkaline and has a pH over eight. Also, it has that chemical ammonia in it." For a student who had never heard of pH before, he completely absorbed the lesson and gave me an answer that would make a Gen Chem student jealous. Obviously, factors other than intelligence must be holding them back from academic success.
Let's take a brief intermission to assess this information for ourselves. Please excuse me as I put on my American Studies thinking cap and prepare for my rant:
It is no coincidence that Wabanaki Indians in Maine today tend to live in some of the poorest communities with the highest unemployment rates. In the words of the scholar George Lipsitz, "a possessive investment in whiteness" is still rampant. By this "investment", I mean that in the 1700s the "white man" came during the French and Indian War and stole the native peoples' land, introduced them to disease, refused them the right to vote or to an education and wrote a completely inaccurate history. Today, after over 300 years of "progress," American Indian populations are still essentially left in the dust, with many in Maine living in what look like 20-year-old FEMA trailers and coexisting in a society that continues to glorify the death of their culture (think Columbus Day celebrations). Let's not fool ourselves--there is still a system in place to more or less dissolve the Wabanaki culture.
Chadwick noted that the State of Maine was not required to educate the Wabanaki Indians until the 1970s, and as a result many of the elders in the community have had a hard time getting a job today without a high school diploma. Ty Robertson of the Penobscot Nation noted that in Orono, many of the mills will not hire "native people" under the false pretense that they are "lazy" because they "miss too many days of work" when a member of their community dies and they must remain at home to take part in a traditional period of mourning. One could even make the argument that the government-issued food for Wabanaki Indians living below the poverty line is of such poor nutritional quality and is soaked in so much high fructose corn syrup that it contributes to the statistic that American Indians are three times more likely to contract type-II diabetes than the average white American. Or you could consider the difficulty of maneuvering through a dominant culture that essentially ignores the presence of American Indians in history or simply blatantly misconstrues them (Disney's Pocahontas may be fun to sing along to, but it is also, unfortunately, completely false).
For these reasons and many more, I will never look at Maine in the same way. We can scoff at the statistic that Maine is 97 percent white, but let us not forget the rich Wabanaki culture--or more importantly, the fact that at one point Maine was 97 percent Wabanaki. The prejudice towards the native people continues today, but it is so embedded into the system that one must look with a critical eye to see its true magnitude.