Thayer Memorial Library in Lancaster, MA on a snowy day.

Some reflections of Richard Grady’s article in the Mendon News — A Clash of Cultures in Mendon 345 Years Ago.

Despite our current cultural infatuation with tearing down statues of past heroes, I offer these reflections with a mix of fear and trepidation. The teacher or historian who critiques his elders will inevitably endure the same in the future. Moreover, I am not a resident of Mendon or Upton, though I have close family there.

My family grew up north of a different Mendon in upstate New York. Pittsford, the home of Wegmans, the Erie Canal, and our own neglect of the darker hues of our shared heritage. There I developed a love for local history. South of Mendon lies Victor which was built on indigenous land. (It it is best not to inquire too closely into the security of land holdings built upon fraudulent and coerced treaties, but I digress.) The Ganondagan State Historic Site preserves and interprets the living culture of the original inhabitants of the area.

As a teacher at Nashoba Regional High School in Bolton, Massachusetts I have been part of a process whereby students, staff, parents, administrators, and the school committee have reflected upon our use of Native American imagery in our school logo and mascot over the past several decades.

Returning to the recent article in the Mendon News, I was struck that its description of King Philip’s War reflected an outdated understanding of early colonization. Perhaps that is not surprising, Richard Grady apparently was an outstanding middle school teacher who is about twenty five years older than me. The article is entitled “Last Lesson: Leave them Wanting More.” As he transitioned from teaching at the middle school to serving as Town Historian, he may not have had the same opportunities to keep up with the latest scholarship and museum displays on the conflict.

Assuming that he still wants to learn more, I would like to offer some “newer suggestions” on how we might understand our own troubled racial history. I hope that these reflections will place the current passions of the Black Lives Matter protests in the larger context of the 400th anniversary of the settlement/invasion of Plymouth/Pawtuxet by English Pilgrims.

Mr. Grady’s article reflects the position very common during the 1990s and early 2000s of “teaching the controversy.” Explain how each side views a situation and then let the students decide.

The George W. Bush administration recommended teaching the controversy about Evolution and Creationism as well as Climate Change. While such an approach has merit, the scientific and scholarly process suggests that some ideas no longer merit equal time in public schools.

The story of the origins of life and the changing climate are complex and sophisticated and should be studied in all of their richness and complexity. Students need to understand the science and history are a never ending process of debates. Nevertheless, the planet is warming at an alarming rate and the models for the future are terrifying. A balanced education and prudent planning for the future require an acknowledgment that the climate is changing and that evolution is a powerful metaphor for explaining life and the foundation of our life sciences industry and the race for cures for Covid-19.

Minds may work best when open, but we don’t want our students to spend third and fourth grade debating whether 3 X 6 =18. They need to understand it, master it, and then move on to division.

The Walt Disney film Pocahantas used a similar approach to “Native American” vs. “English” conflicts in the song Savages. Both sides, are equally described as savages. Yet one side was invading the land, the other was defending it. Those are not morally equivalent positions.

Film version of “Savages” from Youtube

(As a brief aside, Elizabeth Warren had just been lured to Harvard Law School at this time and was only beginning her public advocacy for bankruptcy protection. Regardless of how she filled out paperwork in the 1990s or earlier dismissing her as an “Indian Princess” does nothing to heal our relations with Indigenous tribes or our economy which continues to thrive on exploiting the poor.)

Brandeis Historian David Hackett Fischer in his book Champlain’s Dream has noted that savage or (sauvage) did not originally carry the negative connotations that is does today. It was used in the context of “Noble Savage,” which derives from the Latin “Silvaticus” or creature of the woods. In this sense the elves of middle earth, Peter Pan, Paul Bunyan, and many residents of rural areas are “savages” or forest dwelling folk who refuse to live according to the rules of cities.

The descendants of the conquerors, don’t have the right to name the conquered unless we wish to continue the pattern of displacement. Nipmuc and other indigenous leaders and their allies have long advocated for the sovereign right to their sacred symbols and their public presentation.

The easiest place to explore this history locally is at the Nipmuc Museum in Grafton. It is part of the Hassanamisco Reservation which is the last tribal owned land in Massachusetts for the Nipmuc people.

All citizens ought to hear the retelling of the early history of New England through stories of modern day indigenous leaders.

Disputes with Connecticut over gaming revenues coupled with earlier political leaders studied erasures of a complicated past have left them with state but not federal recognition. The erasures and conquests of our ancestors continue to rob the Nipmuc of land access and financial opportunities in the present. Federal moves against the Mashpee on Cape Cod only compound the legacy of violence and exploitation.

Alice Nash and her team of scholars have been providing such opportunities for the past seven years. Massachusetts teachers as well as others around the country have had the opportunity to reboot and refresh their understanding of English and Native relations in New England.

Funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, teachers and home schooling parents collaboratively listened, read, debated, and toured key sites in Southern New England. More information about their work and the lessons they have created can be found at . They are also on Twitter @teachnatamhistory. You can find easy lesson plans as well as tips to decolonize your classroom.

A Prezi Lesson with Key Concepts for Teaching Native American Histories

Curious and empathetic adults who immerse themselves in these seminars immediately face difficult questions about their own education and practice.

Visits to Plymouth Plantation and elsewhere reveals how radically the interpretation of earlier colonial history has been reexamined since the 1990s. They also reveal how far we are from a shared understanding of this “legacy of conquest.”

My first introduction to King Philip’s War came through Jill Lepore’s excellent book, The Name of War: King Philip’s War in History and Memory, which received the prestigious Bancroft prize. Lepore grew up in Sterling, Massachusetts near a key center of Nipmuc culture at the Weshacum lakes. She currently teaches at Harvard and is a staff writer at the New Yorker. The Name of War was path breaking in 1998 when it was published.

Her most recent work These Truths: A History of the United States, however, was roundly criticized by many in the scholarly community for not adequately incorporating indigenous perspectives and the work of recent scholars. If an award winning Harvard historian cannot keep up with the reapprisal of traditional narratives of the past, what hope is their for high school and middle school teachers?

As the demands for systemic change grow louder, teachers are caught in a tsunami of change. Our parent’s heroes have become our children’s villains.

The first step would be to read the latest scholarship on King Philip’s War and attend public programs where those scholars speak. Fortunately, modern publishing and the spread of social media creates many opportunities even in a socially isolated summer.

Lisa Brooks, who shares Western Abenaki and Polish heritage recently won the 2019 Bancroft prize for her seminar work Our Beloved Kin:A New History of King Philip’s War. Her book is not light beach reading but it provides a helpful corrective to four centuries of misinformation.

Since the world has changed in the past two decades, interested readers can easily access the supporting website with pictures and maps describing the conflict.

For individuals preferring podcasts or YouTube presentations you can listen to her being interviewed or watch her presenting at Brown University.

The cliff notes version is that Brooks and other indigenous scholars now describe an invasion fueled by a “virgin soil epidemic,” or global pandemic of small box, bubonic plague and other diseases.

The Atlantic ocean separating “Turtle Island” from Eurasia created a perfect storm of disease, warfare and mistrust. The indigenous Wampanoag, Abenaki, Nipmuc, and Narragansett communities that had long occupied the area were weakened and nearly decimated, by disease.With there populations collapsing, they were unable to withstand the subsequent waves of invasion by English, Dutch, French, Spanish, and other colonists.

Famed leaders such as Massasoit, Squanto, and others quickly adapted to their “new normal” and sought allies of necessity in their own “unprecedented times.” The endured kidnap, cultural erasures, and the inability to bury their own dead. Maybe the current crisis will help us to understand the horrors of King Philip’s War, still deadlier per capita than the American Civil War.

The team at Plimoth Plantation has reinterpreted the first Thanksgiving by encouraging students to read and debate images, oral histories, and documents to reach their own conclusions.

Careful attention to the context and diverse stories of the past forces us to discard our childhood views of American innocence. We are no longer living in Charles Schultz’ America. No amount of Charlie Brown specials or cut out paper turkeys can stop our growing awareness of the traumatic founding of America. Our maturity as a people and a nation requires that we face these truths head on.

The Mashentuquet Pequot Museum has created a powerfully interactive retelling of early conflict. The film the Witness dramatically retells the Pequot War from the perspective of a lone young survivor of the atrocity.

Since it carries the emotional punch of Schindler’s List or Twelve Years a Slave, parents or teachers would be wise to prepare their younger children for the emotional onslaught. We can prepare but we cannot shelter them. The old lessons and conclusions will not withstand the challenges of a rising generation of youth activists insisting that their lives matter. White washing history only blinds the older generation. Authentic indigenous stories must be included in the curriculum.

Only by reexamining the “founding myths” of New England can we create a new and more inclusive understanding our storied past. Stronger and more hones words like “invasion” and “genocide” must be included. Study these events as recommended by Facing History and Ourselves and older myths shatter in the face of the historical record, broken treaties, and graveyards of New England.

There is a growing historical consensus that our exceptionalism may lie in our ability to deny the damage that our “Manifest Destiny” has done to the first people of the “New World.” Refusing to confront our own legacy of imperialism dishonors enslaved Africans, women, poor whites, and our own children by only sharing the sanitized version of the past. Surely we can do better in the future.

Such progress can only be made if we listen to scholars like Brooks who are living and breathing examples of the fact that Native Americans are not some relics of a bygone time but instead our friends, neighbors, and teachers. They show up to protest at Plymouth and Mount Hope, Rhode Island to remind us that they are not dead.

After King Philip’s War some retreated North and West towards Canada or quietly melted in to the dominant culture. We often forced them to deny themselves for their own survival. The eugenecist practices of the 1920s and 1930s forced them to hide “Abenaki” ancestry to census takers. Now their acts of self-protection get used to deny that they have Indigenous roots. That is a legacy of shame. Those of us who claim to be white allies need to own and teach it as such.

Hopefully by the time the Massachusetts Bay colony celebrates four hundred years in 2030 we are not still stuck in the same narratives of clashes of culture leading to inevitable displacement and disappearance.

For that to happen all us must engage in difficult conversations. Truth and reconciliation may look different in different communities. But all of us must commit to living a more inclusive story. Only then can a new shared story emerge.

If a new myth emerges in which an Unum E Pluribus weaves together all of the rich and diverse tapestry currently inhabiting Turtle Island, I am sure that Richard Grady and other teachers of his generation would be proud.

If he reads this I would be happy to buy him a socially distanced lunch and discuss lessons each of us have learned as teachers and students of history.



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Meister Käßner

Asking important questions about living well amid the farms and forests North and West of Boston.