UMaine Machias’ Kinap mentorship program empowers Native students to be community leaders

To make campus a better place for Native students, the best thing to do is to get those students involved. The Kinap Mentorship program at the University of Maine Machias empowers Native students to engage with their culture on campus and take what they have learned to empower the local tribal community. 

Since about 2013, UMaine Machias has experienced a slight decrease in the number of Native students enrolled, said Darren Ranco, chair of Native American Programs, associate professor of anthropology and coordinator of Native American research at the University of Maine. While UMaine’s Orono campus has facilities like the Wabanaki Center and programs like the Wabanaki Youth in Science (WaYS) program, which incorporates indigenous science and learning methods into classes like forestry and engineering, Ranco realized there wasn’t much indigenous presence on campus at UMaine Machias, despite its close proximity to tribal communities in Washington County. 

“We started brainstorming ways that we could address both of those situations — more student recruitment and retention programs, and looking at ways to support Native students at UMaine Machias,” Ranco said. 

With this in mind, Ranco and his colleagues at the University of Maine Wabanaki Center and the WaYS program developed the Kinap Mentorship Program for Wabanaki students at the University of Maine at Machias. Kinap (pronounced gee-nap) loosely translates to “future leaders.” 

The mentors, a group known as the Kinapiyik (plural for Kinap, pronounced gee-nah-pee-yig), are responsible for participating in both on- and off-campus programs aimed at bringing together Wabanaki cultural values and Indigenous ways of knowing with Western education. 

“The design is based on what we’ve learned through the WaYS program, with a little bit of a wrinkle,” Ranco said. “It employs the notion of two-eyed seeing, Indigenous science and Western science coming together in pedagogical spaces.” 

In spring 2021, UMaine hired Jennifer Isherwood as the assistant coordinator of Native American student outreach and development at UMaine Machias to kick the program off and establish a point person for Native students on campus.

“I think it’s innovative in a place where there are not a lot of programs targeted specifically for the benefit of Indigenous students,” Isherwood said. “There is no full-time Indigenous faculty at UMaine Machias, so having a representative there that’s dedicated to solely supporting Indigenous students is brand new.”

In addition to supporting Native students to connect with resources, including tuition waivers, Isherwood recruited students for the Kinap Mentorship Program, which launched in fall 2021. She said the recruitment process was more challenging than it might seem. Not all Native students self-identify when they apply to UMaine, so Isherwood worked with tribal community members to connect with students, in addition to posting flyers and getting the word out in more traditional ways.   

“Gaining that trust and relationship takes time; you can’t expect that to happen overnight,” Isherwood said. 

The first cohort of the Kinap Mentorship Program had four students, which Ranco said is impressive given the size of UMaine Machias and the winnowing population of Native students on campus. One of the flagship members, Xander LaComb, a first-year visual arts major from Norway, Maine, said the idea of promoting Native culture on campus attracted him to the program. 

“I didn’t grow up in an area with a lot of Native culture,” LaComb said. “The idea of being able to establish that here really appealed to me.”

Even in its first year with its small-but-mighty cohort, the Kinap mentors accomplished a lot. Isherwood organized a variety of activities, including social gatherings, lectures from Indigenous leaders, and roundtables with students and faculty involved in projects that are positively impacting tribal communities across the state. 

This past semester, Isherwood organized a field trip to local petroglyphs where the Kinapiyak were encouraged to invite Native high schoolers from the community. She also started a lecture series called Wabanaki Voices, which offers members and allies of the Wabanaki community the chance to speak and engage with the UMaine Machias community. As part of the series, she hosted a talk with Jennifer Pictou, founder and head instructor of Dawnland Martial Arts, who discussed how the problem of missing and murdered Indigenous women gave rise to its creation of a self-defense program called Kinapiskw’k within international Wabanaki communities. 

“She was really incredible,” LaComb said. “She was willing to be vulnerable about her experiences as a Native woman. It was just a really powerful thing to experience.”

The Kinapiyak also established a Native American student lounge, where they had the opportunity to design the space and pick the decorations. LaComb said that he was even able to put his visual arts skills to work in making signs for the space. 

Though the space is open to everyone on campus who is willing to be respectful of its meaning, many of the Kinap Mentorship Program events are held at the new lounge. For example, the program hosted a “lunch and learn” in the student lounge with suicide prevention representatives from Wabanaki Health and Wellness about what it means to be a Kcitpahsuwet, a guiding light, in tribal communities. With the hosts, the students braided sweetgrass, talked about issues of social and emotional support, and discussed what other programs they would like. 

Supporting students in this way is an important element of the program in general. Kinapiyik are required to meet with a representative of the Wabanaki Center for life-coaching sessions every other week. 

The Kinap Mentorship Program also comes with a financial incentive, too. In exchange for their participation in the programs, the students receive a stipend of $1,500 per year.

“I think there’s so many things competing for students’ time,” Ranco said. “Some of them have very complicated roles within their families and things where they’re spending time and maybe not bringing in some money that’s going to be given a lower priority.” 

The long-term goal of the Kinap Mentorship Program is to create a group of Native American peer mentors for younger Native students throughout the academic year. Ranco said that they hope to expand the program to the Orono campus this fall. 

“I’m so happy with the way it’s progressed so far,” Ranco said. “Even one or two students from these communities having an impact is important, for sure.”

Isherwood said that next year, she hopes to recruit students into the program earlier in the year and get more involved with younger students in the community. LaComb also hopes to spend more time in the Native community beyond campus.

“There hasn’t been much of an opportunity yet because of COVID, which is understandable, but I’m hoping once we move away from those we get to go into after-school programs and such,” LaComb said.

Still, LaComb said that he will “100%” be participating in the Kinap Mentorship Program in the years to come. 

“The program has helped me a lot as a freshman finding my place on campus and it’s also helped me a lot to connect to my culture as a Native student,” LaComb said. “I think going on I think it’s going to do that for a lot of other people too.”

Contact: Sam Schipani,