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Native peoples know better than anyone how the past informs the present. Just this March, the U.S. Department of the Interior ruled that the few thousand remaining members of the Mashpee Wampanoag are not entitled to their tribal land. Steven Senne/Associated Press, File

The Wampanoag are still here.

Four hundred years after the Mayflower arrived in what is now Massachusetts, through disease, war and displacement, the tribe that met the Pilgrims is still here, just as the descendants of the other Native peoples brutalized through colonization and western expansion are still here.

And just like those other Native peoples today, the Wampanoag are a piece of the wonderful, uneasy mosaic that is America.

The glue that binds those pieces together, however, is vulnerable – to our own insecurities, prejudices and ignorance, and to the people who wish to exploit those human faults.

But the binds between us are made stronger when we engage with the truth behind the American experiment. We should have the courage to tell the hard stories of how we got here, so we are able to better judge where we are – and where we need to go.

The history of the United States is not solely the story of European colonizers and the adventurers who headed West, though it is often told that way. But that is changing for the better: Just as there is no way to understand the U.S. today without studying the institution of slavery, you can’t see America in its entirety if you start the story with Columbus or the Pilgrims.

After decades in which the Wampanoag were relegated to the background of their own story, many schools are providing a more rounded view of what has become known as the first Thanksgiving.

Likely not a memorable occasion even to the participants, the 1621 harvest celebration took on new importance decades later.

The story told was sanitized. It was formulated at a time when the Indian Wars were coming to a close, and Americans wanted to forget the carnage and subjugation that had been laid on the Native tribes by westward expansion.

Sure, the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag met for harvest celebration, but it was more about diplomacy than friendship – the tribe had been decimated by a plague and was looking for allies.

And the glossy story of cross-cultural embrace in the New World forgets that Natives and Europeans had been in contact for decades, with much conflict. The alliance between the tribes and the Europeans would be short-lived, too, with tensions rising through the next few decades, culminating in the bloody King Philip’s War, ending Native resistance to colonization in the region.

It’s a complex story of conflict and injustice, but it is one that students can handle. They should know that the Native tribes were not just characters in the Pilgrims’ play, there to help them through the first winter then disappear stage left.

They were here for thousands of years before the first European arrived. They were subjected to awful treatment, over centuries, in ways we should not want repeated. The echoes of that treatment can still be heard today as many Native peoples remain marginalized – just look at how their communities are being ravaged by COVID-19, largely because of health and economic disparities carved out through years of discrimination and neglect.

Of course, Native peoples are more than just their history, and they are not a monolith.

But they know better than anyone how the past informs the present. Just this March, the U.S. Department of the Interior ruled that the few thousand members left of the Mashpee Wampanoag are not entitled to their tribal land.

No, Native Americans can’t forget their past – and neither should anyone else.


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