On Sunday afternoon, November 4, a capacity audience at the Jenks Senior Center gathered to hear racial justice educator and author, Debby Irving, and activist Claudia Fox Tree of The Massachusetts Center for Native American Awareness hold a public dialogue around the myths that continue to frame indigenous people in stereotypical ways.

Ms. Irving began by telling of a talk she once gave in which she spoke of those in this country who have not enjoyed the system of unearned advantages known as white privilege. While she touched on Native Americans in her remarks, Claudia Fox Tree, who was present at that talk, felt she did so all too briefly. At the end of Irving’s public remarks, Ms. Fox Tree approached her to say as much. This moment marked the beginning both of their friendship and their collaboration.

Each went on to share her origin story:

Claudia fox Tree

Ms. Fox Tree is a member of the Arawak nation, the indigenous people of South America and the Caribbean encountered by Christopher Columbus. She grew up in the Boston suburb of Concord, the daughter of a German mother and a father from Roxbury who helped establish the first-ever National Day of Mourning (as indigenous people refer to the fourth Thursday in November) some 400 years after Europeans’ 1620 arrival on Wampanoag land. It was not until she was 19 years old and opened to Page One of Howard Zinn’s Peoples’ History of the United States that she ever saw her tribe’s name in print. Aside from stock demeaning stereotypes there was nowhere she could see truthful representation of her heritage as a Native American.

Debby Irving

By contrast, as a white child of privilege living in Winchester, Ms. Irving remarked that she saw people “like her” everywhere she looked. They were running banks, law firms, and corporations, to say nothing of the schools and hospitals. Of the indigenous people who occupied these lands “before” she saw only two things in her day-to-day life: the teepee-and-crescent-moon logo on her parents’ Winchester Country club cocktail glasses and the large mural, entitled “Purchase of Land from the Indians,” that to this day dominates the lobby of the town library. When, as a young child, she asked her mother why she couldn’t see and play with the descendants of these proud-looking people her mother said to her “they drank themselves to death.”

Ms. Irving’s mother passed on this warped version of history to her daughter because this was what she herself had been told, whereas further investigation into the history reveals a far darker account: The native people witnessed their fellow villagers killed, their land taken, even the safety of their dwellings violated when these would-be conquerors ‘gifted’ them with blankets infected with smallpox.

Ms. Irving has powerfully documented her own personal journey of coming to be aware of her white privilege and the inaccurate narratives she learned growing up in a very important memoir entitled Waking Up White, and Finding Myself in the Story of Race.

Audience members then gathered into small groups where they recalled myths they had been taught in which the actions of the white settlers were valorized while those of the native people were distorted.

Myths learned early by audience members and the reality behind the myths

Myth One states that there were only some 100,000 indigenous people in all of North America when the Pilgrims landed, whereas in fact there were at least 8 million and perhaps as many as 18 million.

Myth Two holds that the first Thanksgiving was a community-wide demonstration of gratitude for the year of harmony experienced between the two. In fact, the day involved only the men of both sides meeting in more of a diplomatic sit-down and any celebrating that occurred was focused on the slaughter by the nearby settlers of some 700 men, women and children of the Pequot tribe.

Finally, a third myth discussed was the notion that scalping was practiced only by “savage” Indians. In truth it was white settlers who often took hatchets and knives to the heads of their victims for the bounty money given them for each scalp, a practice which gave rise to the term “Redskin:” citizens couldn’t be expected to bring in whole bodies as proof of their work, so instead they brought the skin and hair severed from the heads of their victims to the various seats of government.

The audience was then invited to offer suggestions about what might be done today to redress this legacy of ignorance:

Audience suggestions to redress legacy of ignorance
  • The mural in the library could be the basis for an in-depth education project. Some questions: What more can we learn from the widowed squaw Sachem on whose land we live, and why would the mural’s creator depict the Pilgrim men dressed for the late-fall season in heavy wools while the native men are bare-chested?
  • It is important to educate our community about the harm inflicted by the perpetuation of stereotypes of Indigenous People as primate warriors, in symbols like the Sachem logo.
  • The Winchester School Committee could be approached about giving the Social Studies curriculum K through 12 a fresh look from the perspective of these matters.
  • There is a need for vigilance about state-wide curriculum development in history, to ensure an accurate representation of the treatment of Indigenous Peoples, particularly in light of the possibility that the State Board of Education will create a history MCAS.
  • Non-Native Americans could begin to familiarize themselves with the culture of the people whose time here predated them by attending indigenous events, participating in marches, or taking part in the Day of Mourning on the fourth Thursday in November.

Concluding the afternoon, Ms. Irving stated that she hoped members in the audience could get more training in how to better navigate difficult conversations across all differences. Ms. Fox Tree, for her part, left the audience with a reminder of what multicultural educator James Banks has said; namely that is not enough simply to know. One has to know, then care, then act, to make a difference.

Resources:

Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States

James W. Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s All the Real Indians Died Off: And 20 Other Myths About Native Americans

The Reclaiming Native Truth Project