When you walk on the Freedom Trail in Boston, the line between the present and the past can get hazy.

Stand on the corner where British soldiers fired on an angry mob, or sit in a pew at the Old North Church, you realize that the Boston Massacre and the midnight ride of Paul Revere are not just stories in books, but also messy events involving real people whose choices still affect our lives today.

One stop on the tour is the Old State House, which the guides will tell you is the oldest public building in Boston and was once the seat of power for the king’s vast New England holdings.

What they won’t tell you is that it was also the place where plans for the systematic murder and removal of Native peoples were developed – or that among the instruments of that plan was a reward system for killing men, women and children of the Penobscot Nation in what is now called Maine.

A new short film, “Bounty,” produced by Upstander Project and the Penobscot Nation, fills in that missing piece of history.

It tells the story of the Phips Proclamation, the 1755 document written in the Old State House, which required colonists to “embrace all Opportunities of pursuing, captivating, killing and destroying all and every of the aforesaid Indians.”

For killing a male Penobscot older than age 12, the government promised 50 pounds, an amount equal to a clergyman’s annual salary, or $12,000 in today’s money. It also set the price of 25 pounds for killing female Penobscots and young children. To get paid, the killers only needed to present their victims’ scalps.

The film takes place in the same ornate room where Lt. Gov. Spencer Phips signed the death warrant, and cuts between three groups of present-day Penobscot families as parents read his proclamation and try to explain it to their children.

When you see the young people’s reaction, you realize that this is not a story in a book but a real event involving real people that still affects us today.

The scalp bounties – and there were dozens of them – are not part of the “rich history” you hear about on the Freedom Trail. And it’s not part of the history lessons most of us learned in school.

But “Bounty” could change that. The nine-minute film and its accompanying study guide is designed to fit into middle and high school curricula, adding context to the story of Colonial America at the birth of the Revolution.

The ice-cold language of the proclamation and the stunned horror on the faces of the young people in the film are bound to make some people uncomfortable. It is the kind of lesson that has led to school board protests in other states by people who claim that white students are harmed when schools address the racist parts of American history.

But the point is not to make white kids feel guilty, said “Bounty” co-director Maulian Dana, who also appears in the film with her two daughters. It’s about telling the whole truth instead of a story so incomplete it’s a lie.

Invasion, colonization and genocide appear throughout human history in virtually every spot on the globe, Dana said in a phone call last week: “When we study the Holocaust in Europe, what we find is ‘normal’ people doing evil things.” It’s important for all people to understand the forces that allowed that to happen, she said.

It’s also important to recognize that what happened two centuries ago reverberates today. The scalp bounties and land claims made some people rich, creating a legacy for those who came after them. The tribes emerged from decades of war followed by other forms of oppression and exclusion left a different legacy. Poverty on the reservation, culture-killing boarding schools and the systematic misuse of the child welfare system (the subject of Upstander’s 2019 film “Dawnland“) all play a role in the lives of Native people in Maine today.

In “Bounty,” Dawn Neptune Adams, another co-director, tells about the scientific research that suggests that traumatic events can change DNA, leaving traits that are passed from one generation to the next. The terror of being hunted like an animal could be part of their descendants’ consciousness, whether they know the story or not.

When you think of it like that, the Freedom Trail is not the only place where the line between the past and present is hazy.


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