A Silenced Narrative — Legacy of the Indigenous in New England
BY REPORTING TEAM
According to Nipmuck legend, the Earth was once an expanse of never-ending water. A Giant Turtle swam in this ocean, carrying Eagle, Owl, Crow, Deer, Fox, Turkey, Muskrat, and Beaver on his back. One day, the Creator transformed into a Hare and joined the animals. He sent Crow to search for brown earth to build an island, but Crow returned empty-handed. Other animals searched, but each failed. Only Muskrat succeeded, emerging from the water with precious sand cupped in his paws. From this, the Creator forged land, animals, birds, and humans. Muskrat preserves the memory of the world’s creation by building his house in its shape, a dome, and the Nipmuck people emulate the same dome-shaped homes.
Thousands of years later, their legacy leaves only a few artifacts, projectile points, and tool fragments, stored in the Acton Memorial Library. Today, only 0.1% of Acton’s population is of Indigenous descent. What occurred in the Nipmuck story between then and now? How can our community grow from their past?
These questions surrounded the core of Acton-Boxborough’s mascot debate last fall. Many questioned whether our mascot—the Colonial—symbolized patriotic freedom or genocide and racism. On October 15th, 2020, the school committee ultimately voted to retire the mascot, citing that it failed to represent Acton-Boxborough’s diverse student population.
This year, The Spectrum’s Reporting Team decided to investigate the Indigenous history that many, in our district and our nation, currently grapple with. We re-evaluated the influence of race and racism on our school curriculum and sought new perspectives to understand our town’s past.
The Indigenous people of Massachusetts trace back to the Paleoindians, who moved to New England following the final ice age’s conclusion. Eventually, the Paleoindians diverged into distinct groups cited as Native-American tribes. Massachusetts officially recognizes six tribes, including the Nipmuc tribe, or “freshwater people,” who lived in the central plateau of Massachusetts. The region encompassed the modern-day Worcester and Middlesex Counties, near today’s Acton. Living in scattered villages tied by alliances, the Nimuc depended on hunting, gathering, and harvesting for sustenance. Despite their wandering nature, they planned carefully.
While the Nipmuc lacked a developed system of government, they led peaceful lives. Today, the “Nipmuc Nation” is among New England’s largest Indigenous communities with nearly 600 members, but the tribe is not yet federally recognized.
Artifacts from seasonal hunting and fishing have been found in Acton at the Pine Hawk site. In the late 1990s, Massachusetts commissioned a land plot survey in South Acton for a new sewer plant. At the site, surveyors discovered thousands of artifacts indicating human habitation spanning over 7,000 years. The Friends of Pine Hawk, a local group dedicated to preserving Indigenous artifacts, was formed to publicize the findings at the Pine Hawk site. The group is advised by descendants of the Nipmuc Nation, such as Rae Gould, the Executive Director of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Initiative at Brown University. Today, the Friends of Pine Hawk displays replicas in the Acton Memorial Library, but the dig site has been covered by holding tanks and sewage plant construction.
Robert Ferrera, founder of the Friends of Pine Hawk, describes the abundance of artifacts in the area as more “than you would ever imagine.” For example, some fields in North Acton have large, circular stone piles, and there is a growing consensus that these were built by Native Americans to pay respects when a family member died. Ferrera declined to share further details to prevent damage to the sites.
Massachusetts is not immune to the widespread marginalization of Indigenous communities, who experience invisibility, erasure, and socio-economic inequality. Fortunately, organizations including the North American Indian Center of Boston (NAICOB) foster cultural resilience and strive to empower Indigenous communities. To do so, NAICOB created an online platform to spotlight Indigenous artist, educator, and speaker voices. The Board of Directors President Jean-Luc Pierite is the grandson of the last chief of the Louisiana Tunica-Biloxi tribe and sustains traditions by volunteering with the Tunica-Biloxi’s Language and Culture Revitalization Program. Isaac Daniel Moore, another board member, grew up in the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation and developed an early passion for studying Cheyenne culture. He focuses on cultural preservation and oral history.
Addressing the pandemic’s impact on Indigenous communities, NAICOB offers vaccine appointments, distributes free PPE supplies, assists with unemployment claims, and performs weekly wellness check-ins. NAICOB’s Department of Employment and Training offers job training and counseling, while their Timothy Smith Network (TSN) Computer Technology Lab provides computer training.
Similarly, the Massachusetts Center for Native American Awareness (MCNAA) works to dispel misconceptions about Indigeneity by educating the public, preserving cultural traditions, and helping Indigenous peoples meet their basic needs. Their Cultural Arts Program includes Indigenous Pow-wows (spiritual gatherings), art showcases, craft-making presentations, and dance exhibitions. Additionally, their Spiritual Assistance and Cultural Enrichment Program helps families stay connected to their culture. For families in need, the organization funds necessities such as food and heating, and for Indigenous college students, MCNAA provides financial support.
Indigenous communities are undoubtedly underrepresented in national media and policy-making. NAICOB reports that the 2010 Census undercounted Indigenous peoples by 5%. Their error slowed funding for Indigenous communities and manipulated the eligibility of Indigenous communities for early education programs, housing, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (which provides food budget benefits for those in need), and Medicaid (which provides healthcare to low-income individuals).
Further, voter suppression persists among Indigenous communities. Indigenous people must travel long distances to polling stations, which lack adequate language assistance and often refuse tribal IDs. The Native American Voting Rights Coalition, a nonpartisan organization, reports that 2020 state redistricting in Utah created a non-Indigenous voter majority inconsistent with the large Indigenous population. Redistricting also split Indigenous reservations into voter districts, preventing half of tribal members from voting for a Yakama Nation citizen. Moreover, in a town with a population of 1,200, Indigenous South Dakotan voters had one polling site with no early registration or voting, whereas a non-Indigenous community with twelve people total had its own polling station.
Sadly, this oppression has far-reaching consequences. Dr. Susan Faircloth, a member of North Carolina’s Coharie Tribe, recalls the segregation within her community. Until the 1940s, Indigenous students had to identify as Black or white to be sorted into segregated schools; otherwise, they were forced to attend boarding schools. There, they were isolated from their language and customs, provoking a trauma that continues to haunt Indigenous communities. Further, many homogenize all Indigenous groups, erasing Indigenous cultures and ignoring nuances between, for example, Athabaskan students in Alaska and Ojibwe students in North Dakota. Ultimately, society may have made progress, but much remains to rectify the extensive trauma inflicted on Indigenous communities.
In July 2020, members of the student-run organization Acton Boxborough Students for Equity and Justice (ABSEJ) denounced the Colonial mascot, calling for its retirement. ABSEJ created a petition for its removal, which argued that this symbol was rooted in remnants of racism and oppression, making it a problematic figure to unite students over. Another petition countered with an argument for maintaining the current mascot, explaining that it symbolized patriotism and had longstanding ties to the town and district.
On September 17th, 2020, ABSEJ presented to the school committee, explaining that the mascot was divisive and lacked representation for the student body’s racial and ethnic diversity. Over the next month, the school committee invited community members to express their opinions on the issue; over 700 students and adults weighed in.
Ultimately, the committee voted unanimously to retire the mascot, a decision that addressed the cultural misrepresentation and appropriation that Indigenous communities face. While schools and sports teams across the country still have mascots that are racist towards Native Americans, this step significantly furthered equity in our school community.
However, the school still fails to address systemic problems regarding race and diversity. As hate crimes have become increasingly prevalent at the high school, deeper changes become increasingly necessary to create a safe environment for all students; examining and restructuring our social studies curriculums to incorporate discussions about racism and other critical social issues would help our community move forward.
As many students agree, the ABRHS curriculum insufficiently covers the history of Indigenous people in Massachusetts and Acton. Since it fixates on the implications of conquest, students feel that the culture and history of Indigenous people--absent their relationship with colonization--is lost. A 2020 AB graduate said they “never felt there was time or space in class to learn more about Indigenous people” and that this incredibly diverse group of people was “treated as a side note.”
Students note the high school’s history classes are often superficial and lack perspectives from those involved. Similarly, some argue that lessons are tokenistic at times, especially in the US History classes: the narrative begins with Indigenous people’s relocation but soon abandons Native American history as the curriculum moves on to white advancements. As such, students are pushing for the Social Studies Department to take a well-rounded approach to teaching the history of Indigenous people.
David Green, ABRHS Social Studies Department Head, explained that the Massachusetts Department of Education assembles a flexible history topic guide that should be covered from kindergarten to 12th grade. At ABRHS, department leaders organize lessons based on the state-issued frameworks. The department also heavily emphasizes outreach, so when new classes are introduced, various groups offer feedback before units become official.
The available history classes reflect the framework requirements and strive to create a fuller world perspective. While an AP World History class would further these goals, a current course must be removed for a new class to be added. Mr. Green explains that “every department is allotted a certain number of classes to be offered” based on population, graduation requirements, and enrollment. With this restriction, appeasing all students when removing courses becomes challenging.
Interestingly, ABRHS requires two years of American history but only one of world history because “if social studies departments have four years of required core courses, then there is little room for any meaningful electives,” according to Mr. Green. International Relations, Psychology, and Economics would be compromised if a second year of world history was introduced. Still, the history department does delve into world history beyond the homogeneous class. International Relations focuses on related topics in China, the Middle East, Latin America, and South Asia; and the Genocide and Conflict Resolution course covers the Holocaust as well as the Rwandan, Cambodian, and Armenian genocides.
Although Mr. Green acknowledges that further studies of Indigenous culture and world history are missing, he finds himself juggling accessibility concerns. He comments, “I think one big problem is that AP classes don't always feel accessible to people. It doesn't help us to add another AP class that's simply going to perpetuate the very concern that many people have.” AB is often labeled as a “pressure cooker” where AP classes can feel overwhelming and unmanageable. Mr. Green, and the history department as a whole, question if adding another AP class will advance a more well-rounded history education.
To some extent, the AP curriculum, which the College Board sets, produces a surface-level dive into the history of Indigenous people and other people of color. The history department must then attempt to balance teaching the requisite information for the AP exam and exploring the cultures of Indigenous people and others around the world.
Mr. Green adds that although high school classes minimally cover Indigenous people’s cultures, elementary schools include their traditions and architecture, agriculture, clothing, and other topics untouched by colonialism. He hopes that high school classes will expand upon this information, elaborating that “we see opportunities in the USI curriculum to do that.” Regardless, Mr. Green currently does not see a clear way of replacing the present curriculum content with a more in-depth focus on Indigenous culture when many students are already overworked. Again, the question of accessibility resurfaces, and Mr. Green must consider whether additional readings and resources on Indigenous people should be integrated depending on the course’s intended depth and difficulty. Because the incorporation of Indigenous people’s history is just beginning, Mr. Green feels that more work must first reach out to students and Indigenous people to inform students in an optimal manner.
Outside the high school, local groups are trying to create a more well-rounded perspective of Indigenous history and culture. Friends of Pine Hawk has been working to educate people about Indigenous culture. The group has recently formed a subcommittee with former teachers and hopes to share its research with the high school. Although a significant amount of their information comes from Indigenous people, Friends of Pine Hawk notes that some Indigenous people “don’t like to advertise themselves” and emphasizes that they are not obligated to educate others.
ABRHS clearly needs greater emphasis on Indigenous history independent of colonialism. Focusing mainly on white expansion undermines the rich culture of Indigenous people. Although the implications of colonization persist, other facets of Indigenous history are ignored, creating an imbalance. This conflict raises the question: why is the College Board AP curriculum itself limited? Even history classes not at the AP level must adhere to state guidelines that do not offer many opportunities to learn about Indigenous people. With a greater focus on Indigenous culture at the high school just beginning, the history department hopes to use student feedback to find a balance between what they are required to teach and what truly needs to be learned.
The legacy of the Indigenous people has the potential to become an impactful voice in our time. Many organizations have taken initiative in assisting Native American communities. They educate others, preserve cultures, and provide support in their mission. The MCNAA and NAICOB are only two examples of many awareness programs across the nation. In our own community, students have taken measures to educate themselves and incorporate change, as seen in the mascot’s removal. ABRHS also hopes to bring change within education and to introduce new ideas into the history curriculum.
Ultimately, Indigenous history contains far more details than our research includes, and we acknowledge that we can only provide an external perspective. So while we tried to accurately represent these topics, we can only begin to scratch the surface of the complexity that constitutes Indigenous identity and history.