By K. David Weidner, Ph.D., Executive Director
Despite many things going on in our country, there is one glorious change taking place – the reexamination of TRUTH and giving proper recognition to the people who actually lived the improper portrayals of history. In 2020, we saw the government recognize Juneteenth as a Federal holiday and on October 12, 17 states, plus the District of Columbia, observed Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead, or alongside of, Columbus Day – the incumbent holder of the second Monday in October.
In recent years, the observance of Indigenous Peoples’ Day has grown, along with the celebration of Native Americans, the original inhabitants of this land, and their culture. This is as integral to our nation’s history, if not more than both the arrivals of Columbus and the Mayflower Pilgrims.
History has an interesting way of writing itself through very biased lenses. The lessons taught to us in elementary school painted the Pilgrims as noble and heroic, while the Indigenous Wampanoag they encountered were described as “noble savages” (note the use of the term noble in both descriptions – somewhat contradictory). It is this juxtaposition of ideas that were once held as truths are now finally being brought out into the light.
In 2020, we put the finishing touches on a new permanently commissioned interactive exhibit, Our Story (curated by Wampanoag member and historian, Steven Peters) with one main goal in mind – tell the Wampanoag’s history on Cape Cod accurately. Period. Not a white-washed, biased version that was more convenient and palatable to one side versus the other.
To do this, the first thing we realized we had to do was recognize how our own institution was perpetuating a false narrative. One must realize that the “truths” we were taught were not necessarily right. Case in point, our displaying of the Whittaker Murals, were very much painted with the aforementioned, biased lenses. They were among the first things to change with our new exhibit. Today, they are in permanent, off-site storage; however, we do provide an explanation, an education, as to “Why the Change?” for our visitors.
If you ask the Wampanoag about their encounters with European settlers, their stories don’t paint things in a positive light. Let’s not forget the story of Tisquantum or “Squanto.” He was key in the Mayflower Pilgrims’ early relations with the Wampanoag in Plymouth — because he spoke English. How did he learn it? Fact is, he was kidnapped by explorer Thomas Hunt and taken to Europe and sold into slavery. He learned as a slave, yet history portrays him as having been gifted the English language.
Tisquantum returned to his home in 1619, only to find his village decimated by an epidemic. Sadly, the trend of Native American hardship and mistreatment, which started more than 400 years ago, continues through today.
As an institution whose very being starts with acknowledging the region’s original residents, we salute the ongoing change towards more widespread observance of Indigenous Peoples’ Day. We also encourage everyone to take a deep look at what the day means.
Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a celebration of Native Americans, their culture and long overdue recognition of the original stewards of this land. Unfortunately, it also represents the start of a colonial conquest of their territory, culture and lives, resulting in the death of millions and continual oppression of those who survived.
Will a day of recognition change the past or right wrongs? No. But it’s a step in the right direction. In order to address or fix a problem, one has to admit there is one.
We will be very interested to see how many more cities and states observe Indigenous Peoples’ Day. South Dakota started it in 1990 as the first state. In 1992, Berkeley, California was the first city to do so.
These changes represent signs of progress. As with so many things, admitting there is an issue is the critical first step. Despite classroom lessons about Columbus “discovering” America, it’s pretty commonly accepted now that his discovery was accidental. Education and teaching accurate and complete histories is the key to informing society’s perception and increasing understanding of our past.
Again, this is why creating Our Story to tell the Wampanoag’s history accurately and correctly was mission critical for PMPM. It is our mission to continue to ensure we spread our message of TRUTH (Tolerance-Respect-Unity-Trust-History), artifact by artifact, exhibit by exhibit and wing by wing.
If you haven’t had a chance to experience our new exhibit, Our Story: The Complicated Relationship of the Indigenous Wampanoag and the Mayflower Pilgrims, we encourage you to do so. Monday, October 12 would be a great day to learn more about Native Americans, their history and their culture.
However you observe Indigenous Peoples’ Day, please make sure you stop, think, understand and respect the past while appreciating positive change for the future.