While I was eating my cereal laden with Land O’Lakes milk, I stumbled upon an article regarding the remembrance ceremony of Deer Island concentration camp victims. For those of us who are not familiar with geography or history, Deer Island is one of the Boston Harbor Islands located along Tafts Avenue in Winthrop, MA. Deer Island was connected to Winthrop by filled land and it has been used by Native Americans, immigrants, military personnel, paupers and currently the home of the new Deer Island Waste Water Treatment Plant. The concentration camp in Deer Island was established as a result of Metacom’s (King Philip) War against the English settlers after decades of land grabbing and subjugation. The Massachusetts Council signed a law on October 13, 1675 stating that “all those Indians that are desirous to Approve themselves Faithful to the English, be Confined to their several Plantations under-written, until the Council shall take further Order, and that none of them do presume to Travel above one Mile from the Center of such their Dwelling unless in Company with some English.” All of the Native Americans, including those who converted to Christianity, were rounded up and transferred to the internment camp in Deer Island. The ceremony was attended by at least 40 people including City Councilor Felix Arroyo who placed a wreath on the site and relates the brutal winds that day to the brutal winter that the Native Americans experienced 300 years ago. What struck me the most in the article is about bringing the history of American Indians in the spotlight which was normally hidden or silenced from memory. I will argue about the importance of public history venues in expanding their narratives to incorporate voices that had been silenced for long. That the reasons why Native Americans had been absent from public history discourse are insufficient resources and explanatory biases that attested the domination of racial/class powers. That adding these lost stories back into the historical record is not about trying to change history but about changing the attitudes that keep Native Americans in the place of exclusion and where one part of history is perceived as a whole and therefore represents the only truth.
Why is Native American history hidden or silenced? One of the reasons is the lack of written records prior to colonization. Instead of writing their story, Native Americans rely on oral traditions in propagating their history and commit them to the memory of the community where they can gain pride in knowing their traditions. Native Americans rely on stories and traditions in giving guidelines for the entire tribe and these stories are transmitted from one generation to another by mouth. Oral traditions are so important because it represents their heritage and memory that story tellers were selected at a very young age to remember each story and relate it to the people of the community. The irreverence toward oral traditions that epitomizes the West’s intercourse with the Natives ultimately leads to the denouement of the Natives innate depravity. The lack of written records, in the sentiment of the West, is proof of their lack of history prior to European contact and this poverty of history is due to their savage nature and barbarity. This perspective ultimately leads to the notion that the European settlers gave Native Americans a sense of history and provided them with culture which bestowed dignity to their once uncivilized state. This “noble” cause of the settlers became an ambiguity when they saw the richness of the land that is fresh for the taking. Instead of bringing culture to these “savages” who owned acres of lands, the settlers take it away from them through brute force and intractable savagery. It all boils down in protecting and owning the land. I do believe John Sam Sapiel, a Penobscot, when he said that “the only thing my people were doing during the King Philip’s War was trying to protect our lands…they’re still doing it today in Palestine and all through that area – stealing land trying to get their resources.” The magnanimity of the land is very important in Native American way of life because it is where they can get their livelihood. The land ties them to the tribe and in turn ties them to their ancestors who are buried in this land. One can see the analogy of King Philip’s War to the Israeli-Arab conflict as trying to protect the land. But one should ask who the settler is and who the native is in this ever-growing struggle.
The dominant racial and class force is able to control the historical record and this control eliminated things like the presence of Native American’s in 19th century communities. Unseen Neighbors argues that the canonical prospect of “vanishing” Native Americans is due to the social construction of the dominant class. The dominant class refuses to see the Indian because they did not “behave” as Indian and they were biologically mixed with other races. The identity of an Indian became the creature of white imagination: inebriated, corrupt, or credulous. The authorized version treated American Indians as economically exploited and people at the edge who are disconnected from the social landscape. This single story about “vanishing” Native Americans becomes thoroughly inculcated into the public imagination that we have preconceptions of what constitutes a Native American. A single story is where the same story gets repeated forever while we do not know the story first-hand. This leads to crude stereotypes and paints a false picture of the world. An example of a single story is many Americans think that Africa is full of wild animals and starving children, not a place for businesses and suburbs. This single story is ultimately rejected when we examine records such as treaties with the Natives, enumeration as Indian for the State, and documentation in original birth certificates etc. that demonstrates the Native affirming their individuality and collectivity. The American Indian is only “vanishing” in 19th century discourse because the dominant cultural force purposely ignored them and they were not recognized as being properly Indian anymore.
After the commemoration ceremony, Nipmuck Indians plans to have a Native American memorial on Deer Island. I believe that the creation of a memorial is very important in educating people about the long standing culture of Native Americans that has a deep respect with the land. In a city full of sculptures of historical markers and memorials, it is interesting that there is no public display about the people who lived here many generations before the colonist arrived. The memorial will showcase a tragic piece of U.S. history that serves as a reminder for us not to tolerate such things to happen again. The idea of adding back events into the historical record is not about “changing” history. Not telling what happened does not change the fact of its happening. The memorial will also expand the narrative of the single story about Native Americans and will change our attitudes where one side of history is perceived as the whole. The memorial will primarily serve as a beacon of hope for people like Kenneth, a Nipmuck Indian in South Central Massachusetts, who was asked about the significance of the Deer Island concentration camp and said in a simple statement full of pride and defiance, “We are still here. We were here then and we are here now, living our lives and raising our families.”