Columnist Sara Weinberger: Let’s tell the true story of the founding of America

  • Visitors to Plimoth Plantation, a living history museum village where visitors can get a glimpse into the world of the 1627 Pilgrim village, walk among buildings, in Plymouth, Mass., Nov. 18, 2018. Plymouth, where the Pilgrims came ashore in 1620, is gearing up for a 400th birthday, and everyone's invited, especially the native people whose ancestors wound up losing their land and their lives. AP PHOTO/Steven Senne

Published: 5/20/2019 12:10:25 PM

My ancestors arrived in the United States centuries after the post-1492 genocide of indigenous Americans, but like all non-Native Americans, I benefit from the theft of indigenous land. The Europeans who came to America’s shores murdered, tortured, inflicted diseases upon, kidnapped, enslaved, forcibly converted, deported and raped indigenous Americans in order to “civilize” those who they ironically labeled “savages.” The ethnic cleansing of indigenous Americans by white occupiers used the weapons of broken treaties and forced relocation to occupy Native American land. How do we reconcile the brutality that our country was founded on?

Our educational system largely promotes a version of history representing the perspective of the conquerors. I swallowed the fiction that Christopher Columbus discovered America and that Thanksgiving was a beautiful celebration of friendship between Pilgrims and Natives. I never questioned the indignity of naming my home team the Cleveland Indians, along with its red-faced, grinning mascot. I grew up playing cowboys and Indians and remember using the term “Indian giver” without ever questioning its origins or validity. In school, and on television, I learned that Indians were savages who murdered innocent white people.

Tragically, in most states, including Massachusetts, educators are not required to teach the history and contributions of indigenous Americans. States, like Maine, that legislate the inclusion of indigenous history often don’t provide teachers with the information to instruct their students. Until recently, I knew nothing about the role the Pilgrims played in decimating the Wampanoag, a confederacy of tribes living in Southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island when the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.

Some scholars believe that the Wampanoag shared the first Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims, but they did not live in harmony with their new neighbors for long. In response to the continued theft of Native land by the colonists, in 1675, a band of Wampanoag led a massacre in the settlement of Swansee, Massachusetts, which began the 14-month King Philip’s War, resulting in the deaths of 3,000 Wampanoag and 1,000 colonists, including the Wampanoag Chief Metacomet, who adopted the English name King Philip. This last major effort to drive away the English left the colonists free to continue their expansion.

Many believe that “the past is past,” and it’s time to move on. Such thinking ignores the traumatic impact of genocide on future generations and the continued oppression of indigenous Americans. I recently watched the film “Dawnland” at Amherst Cinema, which highlights the first U.S. truth and reconciliation commission to investigate the government of Maine’s removal of generations of indigenous American children from their families. In the 19th and 20th centuries, tens of thousands of children on reservations were severed from their families and sent to residential schools and foster homes in order to eradicate indigenous Americans through forcibly acculturating their children — another form of genocide.

The Indian Child Welfare Act was established in 1978 to end this century-long practice and to instead “... protect the best interests of Indian Children and to promote the stability and security of Indian tribes and families by the establishment of minimum Federal standards for the removal of Indian children and placement of such children in homes which will reflect the unique values of Indian culture.”

Critics of the ICWA argue that the law is race-based, ignoring the sovereignty of tribal nations. A Federal Appeals Court judge will soon be deciding the fate of this 41-year-old law based on a case heard in March. The consequences of overturning the ICWA would once again threaten the welfare of Indigenous American families. Today, indigenous American children are three times more likely to be removed from their homes than white children, according to “Dawnland.”

An epidemic of sexual assault exists against Indigenous American women, mainly by non-indigenous perpetrators from outside their communities. Indigenous American lands are a dumping ground for nuclear waste. President Trump has threatened to open national monuments, which include sites sacred to indigenous Americans, for oil and drilling. Indigenous Americans are disproportionately killed by police, are over-represented in the prison population and suffer from high rates of poverty, overcrowded housing and inadequate education. Twenty-two percent of indigenous American children experience a rate of PTSD equal to that found among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among Native American youth ages 15-24.

Yet, with the exception of those who stood with indigenous Americans against the Dakota Access Pipeline, the plight of indigenous Americans has not attracted the same attention as those of other marginalized groups. I have been reminded at social justice events that I am living on stolen land, but little is said about addressing this injustice.

In 2020, Massachusetts will be commemorating the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower voyage and founding of Plymouth Colony. The Plymouth 400 website describes “signature events” to make “America’s Plymouth 400 and its aftermath an integral part of our nation’s narrative.” We must demand that Plymouth 400 tell the true story of the founding of America and make sure that our schools do the same. Against all odds, indigenous Americans are still here. Let their voices be heard!

Sara Weinberger, of Easthampton, is a professor emerita of social work and writes a monthly column. She can be reached at

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