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A Connector of People and Ideas: Nolan Altvater, EPA'22

The Intellectual Contribution Award recipient for Education Policy and Analysis reflects on their time at HGSE and looks toward the future.
Nolan Altvater

Nolan Altvater

Photo: Jill Anderson

The Intellectual Contribution Award recognizes graduating Ed.M. students (one from each Ed.M. program) whose dedication to scholarship enhanced HGSE’s academic community and positively affected fellow students. Nolan Altvater, an advocate for inclusive and meaningful Indigenous education policy, will be honored with the Intellectual Contribution Award for Education Policy and Analysis (EPA) Program during HGSE's Convocation exercises on May 25.

Senior Lecturer Carrie Conaway and Professor Andrew Ho, faculty directors of EPA, comment on Altvater’s selection: “The faculty of the Education Policy and Analysis Program are pleased to select Nolan Altvater as the 2022 recipient of the EPA Intellectual Contribution Award. Several faculty testified to Nolan's contributions to the education of their peers, including their work convening a memorable panel on indigenous education policy last November. One faculty member described Nolan speaking, ‘with beauty and extreme seriousness about issues related to indigenous people and policy and education.’ The faculty were also thrilled to see so many students nominate Nolan. One fellow student said that Nolan, ‘really pushed me to think about how I consider inclusion and representation of Indigenous culture in program design and curriculum development,’ and another that their perspective, ‘has been missing from many conversations and perspectives,’ ‘often filling a hole that is missing here in our HGSE faculty.’ Congratulations, Nolan!”

We spoke to Altvater about their time at HGSE, their future plans, and how the pandemic has changed the education landscape:

What were the goals that brought you to the Ed School — and have those goals changed?   

The Indigneous history, particularly the Passamaquoddy history, at both HGSE and Harvard overall drew me to apply to the institution. Education for Indigenous people has been historically used for assimilation and eradication of our bodies and knowledge systems. This is found in the history of Harvard, as seen with the 1655 Charter whose mission was to grant "the education of the English & Indian Youth of this Country in knowledge: and godliness” and had built an “Indian College” right in the yard. Pedagogically, the institution practiced lyceum instruction, which meant that only the sons of leaders could be educated, as well as assimilative methods where the first book translated into indigenous language was the bible, hoping that students would bring these western religious teachings back to their communities to “improve” them.

About three centuries later after the Indian college had failed, a Passamaquoddy ancestor of mine, Wayne Newell, would come to attend the school and work on developing a written system for our language and helped organize what would become the Harvard University Native American Program (HUNAP). Later on, my mentor Darren Ranco (Penobscot) would receive his Ph.D in anthropology here, and then my other mentor, Rebecca Sockbeson (Penobscot), would complete the same program that I am graduating from. Wayne, Darren, and Rebecca have all created many improvements for Wabanaki tribal nations and scholarship. From this, we can start to see a shift in the use of education from assimilation to self-determination, and a practice of intellectual traditions being practiced here at Harvard. I wanted to continue these practices, with the goal that future Wabanaki generations will do so as well in order to continue the push towards intellectual self-determination and the sovereignty of our communities.

What are your post-HGSE plans?

A few months ago, I was offered the curator of education position at the Abbe Museum, which is a museum in what is now Bar Harbor, Maine, that is dedicated to Wabanaki history, culture, and contemporary arts and lifestyles. I decided to accept this position and will actually be starting prior to graduation. Beyond that, I have a few filming projects with Wabanaki communities planned that I am excited for, and much needed bonding time to make up with my cat.

"We can start to see a shift in the use of education from assimilation to self-determination, and a practice of intellectual traditions being practiced... . I wanted to continue these practices, with the goal that future Wabanaki generations will do so as well in order to continue the push towards intellectual self-determination and the sovereignty of our communities."

Is there any professor or class that significantly shaped your experience at the Ed School? 

There are two that come to mind, Aaliyah El-Amin and Gretchen Brion-Meisels have both given me the capacity to stay connected with my Wabanaki communities through research and praxis. Both offer critical perspectives to research and allow Indingeous paradigms to be engaged within the course. Beyond academics, they are both genuinely loving and supporting people who prioritize their students’ feedback and dialogue, all while creating a collaborative environment that nurtures the mind and body. Also, SNACKS!!

What is something that you learned this year that you will take with you throughout your career in education?

Honestly, as the program is intensive and short duration of nine months, you don’t have much capacity to reflect, which is needed to learn. I look forward to how my experiences here will unfold into meaning as I continue my learning, but if I had to choose something now, it would be based on my experience of being able to work with the Santa Clara Pueblo community in New Mexico through the Nation Building course. Their approach to education through prioritizing local control and culturally relevant curriculum for the thriving of their people was very inspiring and insightful. I was able to see how this is strategically done through a policy perspective, which I am hoping to bring this experience back to the Wabanaki communities who are working towards the same initiatives.

How has the pandemic shifted your views of education?

The pandemic has proven to the world that taking the initiative to completely change education can take place. What if we put this same amount of energy and funding into other capacities to change education? We are so afraid of losing “progress” that experimentation and feeling unprepared is considered a bad thing. But, did not the pandemic, and all its uncertainty, bring new approaches to education? What if we put this type of effort into social justice initiatives in this area?

Despite your busy schedule, you always make time for …

Connecting with the land through photography and thinking.