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Centering Indigenous voices, one master's student works to deliver on the promise of an unfulfilled education policy.
Nolan Altvater

Master's student Nolan Altvater

Photo: Courtesy of Nolan Altvater

An education policy that dictates but doesn’t translate into direct engagement and action is incomplete, says master’s student Nolan Altvater. And this is especially true of LD 291, a law in his home state of what is now Maine, which requires teaching Native history and culture in K–12 schools across the state. 

As a Passamaquoddy citizen — one of the four tribes that make up the Wabanaki confederacy — Altvater hopes to see the promise of this policy fulfilled. Though the Maine law has been in place for over 20 years, the responsibility to comply with this requirement has fallen entirely on local school districts, some of which still lack the funding and resources to do this successfully. And educators, even if a school has a curriculum, are not usually prepared to teach it, as there are currently no required courses for education majors within the University of Maine system, a large feeder to the public school and teacher certification system. Due to these obstacles, many teachers often homogenize Wabanaki history.

Altaver is trying to change this. As a member of an advisory board to the Portland public school system, he has been working with educators and other tribal leaders to develop curriculum and resources, help educators implement them successfully, and empower future generations of Native youth in Maine with curriculum that’s relevant to them and their experiences.

“The most important goals of indigenous education policy are to fully integrate, for my case, Wabanaki curriculum, worldviews, and culture, while also building capacity in Native youth and making education more relevant to their ways of knowing and being,” he says. “Because we can’t spend all of our energy and time looking at curriculum, we have to use our intellectual traditions within educational spaces to build the needed relationships to support the sovereignty and self-determination of Wabanaki youth.” 

While an undergraduate at the University of Maine, Altvater began cultivating relationships with educators and young people in schools, designing virtual learning experiences for science classes that emphasized the relationship between the Penobscot and their ancestral rivers. He also conducted community-based action research projects that helped him better understand the impact of Maine’s LD 291. Additionally, Altvater serves on the board of directors of Wabanaki REACH, a restorative organization that supports the self-determination of the Wabanaki community. 

“We’re relying on the power within our communities and the relationships we have together [to do this],” says Altvater. “And building relationships is central to that. That’s also why I’m interested in education — it’s a process we’re all engaged in.”  

While at HGSE, Altvater hopes to continue this work and develop new tools to build relationships with educators, empower young people through participatory action research, and to be able to analyze the successes and barriers to the current Wabanaki studies curriculum. Cultivating this kind of knowledge and skill base will allow him to bring policies around the law to life. 

“Coming from a traditional, oral background, what matters most is participation and interaction in decision making,” says Altvater. “We have the law, but it’s incomplete. It needs direct engagement and action.” 

In doing so, he’s drawing not only on existing relationships in his community but also on relationships with the past — specifically traditions and scholarship from academic mentors like Rebecca Sockbeson, Ed.M.’98, a professor at the University of Alberta, who has also worked on passing and implementation of the Wabanaki studies law in Maine. The work of Wayne Newell, Ed.M.’71, a Passamaquoddy elder and founder of the Harvard University Native American Program, has set an example. HGSE, Altvater notes, has always been a space for Native educators to find the tools to enrich their communities and build intellectual traditions.

“It takes intergenerational work to achieve systemic and pedagogical changes,” says Altvater. “In interacting with their stories, stories of their past, analyzing our traditional forms and systems of governance, I’m finding my own theoretical framework, finding my story in the stories of my ancestors and continuing that now for future generations that will come after me.”