Obomsawin: The Myth of Native American Extinction Harms Everyone

Cluelessness about Native people is rampant in New England, which romanticizes its Colonial heritage.

This article by Mali Obomsawin (shared below in its entirety; link here to the online version) appeared in The Boston Globe Septmeber 15, 2020. Her comments at publishing: “Since the Globe published an article a few months back claiming that the Wabanaki are extinct, I bullied them into publishing an article I wrote about the erasure of northeastern Natives 😉 You can read it here. I’ll just say that white fragility has too much influence over the editing process, but I did what I could to say what I must.”

In college, I attended a rally my friend organized to discuss the constitutionality of flag burning. Predictably, his newspaper op-ed provoked a group of militantly patriotic New Hampshire locals to attend, in defense of the American flag. During the tense gathering, I began chatting with one of the flag defenders, pointing out that the flag doesn’t represent all Americans or make everyone — for example, Native Americans — feel safe.

To which he responded, “Come on, you can’t go back that far, and there aren’t even any Indians left!”

Unique among ethnic groups in the United States, Native people are told constantly, in myriad ways, that we are extinct, when tens of thousands of us live in this region alone. Public cluelessness about Native people is rampant, especially in quaint, rustic New England, which romanticizes its Colonial heritage from Plymouth Rock to its charming “Colonial” bed and breakfasts. But being told to your face that you don’t exist never gets any less weird.

I’m a citizen of the Abenaki First Nation at Odanak, part of the larger Wabanaki community in what has been designated as the northeastern United States and southeastern Canada. The borders declared in the Colonial era fragmented Wabanaki homelands of the Abenaki, Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Mi’kmaq, and Maliseet nations. To us, our loose borders are marked by major waterways: the Saint Lawrence River (Ktsitekw) to the north, the Hudson River (Muhhekunnutuck) and Lake Champlain (Betobakw) to the west, and the Atlantic Ocean (Sobagw) to the east.

Thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement, the balloon of blissful ignorance encompassing white racism has been popped, at least for now. Native people have also benefited from the racial awakening that many white people are experiencing, as monuments as well as mascots and team names with racial slurs are being challenged.

Native Americans face deep-seated discrimination in this country. Beginning over 500 years ago, the settler-Colonial attempts at ethnic cleansing have incorporated tactics of systematic land theft, environmental racism, and revisionist history. Today, it’s convenient to believe that Native people are extinct, because it distances white Americans from the legacy they inherit from early settlers — who committed atrocities specifically and uniquely so white people could live and prosper here today — regardless of when your family arrived.

Erasure is the art of collective forgetting, and one of the most effective tools of racism. Crucially, it absolves the United States from addressing injustices festering at its foundation — and the fact that Native people are still here resisting. Erasure nurtures ignorance through systemic miseducation, stereotyped iconography, and popular culture. Because, like the patriot at the rally, it’s much easier to say the flag represents all Americans if “all” selectively excludes the oppressed.

The version of history that many of us learned in school perpetuates the myth of Native extinction: that after several wars, treaties, and diseases, the Indians died off. Disputed land went to the victors, locking Native people into their chapter of natural history, like dinosaurs or dodos. A neatly bookended Native existence.

What do we really know about the land we occupy and our Native neighbors today? How has “collective forgetting” become integral to American culture?

Ojibwe scholar Jean O’Brien’s book on Northeastern Native invisibility, Firsting and Lastingpoints to New England’s unique historiography. One of the earliest targets of English and French conquest, the region was a testing ground for settler colonialism. By the mid-1600s, self-appointed amateur historians were curating a national origin story that required tales of Native people being conquered to characterize the burgeoning society. They sought to define New England as “the cradle of the nation and seat of cultural power.”

Constructing timelines of the “first” and “last real Indians,” writers simultaneously conveyed the unquestionable modernity of white people and projected that the Native race would soon “vanish” from this land. The national mythos they cultivated became embedded in the tradition of US history writing and teaching, and still deeply affects how Native people are perceived (or not perceived) in New England today.

As a Wabanaki person educated in Maine public schools, I “learned” of my own extinction in these terms from my white history teachers. In middle school, I learned of “Pierpole,” the “last” Abenaki s my teacher described him f Farmington, Maine, who lived in the late 1700s and sold his land to white people. A state law passed in 2001 required Maine public schools to teach Native American history, but my Advanced Placement US History teacher didn’t even cover the names of the Wabanaki nations, whose land the school occupies.

Without incentive to glorify settler-colonialism, scholars unearth less-censored histories. They identify settlers who “cleared” Wabanaki land through organized violence, biological warfare, Western agricultural practices, and coerced treaties. Some settlers attacked Wabanaki cultures and lifeways through Christianizing missions—Harvard and Dartmouth are two that would go on to become elite American universities. These scholars find contempt for Native humanity at the core of American identity. Without it, the United States could not exist.

Colonial settlers posturing as historians wrote legends for future white generations to be proud of. Why should their descendants monumentalize Hannah Duston, who scalped six Abenaki children and four adults in 1697? Or Christopher Columbus? It suggests that real American patriots did the heroic work of clearing a space for white people, and excuses the genocide it entailed.

The house of cards that is American patriotism rests upon collective amnesia and the advancement of historical myths — because ignorance protects us from shame, and denial bars us from problem-solving. Today, as monuments topple and assumptions about this country falter, many people are more closely examining their biases, finding they’ve been shielded from history by white supremacy in education, government, and historiography.

Time will never cure foundational injustices. Nor will monuments — although questioning them is necessary for telling honest histories. While we work to perceive our neighbors living in different realities than us, and become critical of systemic power, we must understand that allyship is a lifelong re-education. We must investigate the assumptions on which our realities are based, and our own occupation of this land. Ultimately, in a nation built upon racism, erasure, and land theft, we must pursue their antitheses: anti-racismIndigenous knowledge and leadership, and returning land to Native peoples.


Mali Obomsawin is a citizen of the Abenaki First Nation at Odanak and contributor to Smithsonian Folklife Magazine. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

Lost Nation on VPR’s Brave Little State


I enjoyed talking recently with Nina Keck about Vermont’s fascination with “Lost Nations”, on this latest episode of Vermont Public Radio’s Brave Little State podcast series. My contribution at about 22:00.

Linked here.



Correcting the Corrections

Editor of the Reformer,

This note is in reference to a letter to the editor of the Reformer published Friday, June 28, 2020, headlined “Historically inaccurate attack on Ethan Allen.” The missive purported to address perceived inaccuracies in a previous letter of June 18, “The Allen brothers are symbols of wrong done to Abenaki.” Without belaboring the politics, I must cry foul on a few of the respondent’s assertions, made to bolster the tarnished reputation of a justifiably-deflated folk hero. The response is rife with its own inaccuracies. It is indeed good to “learn abut history” and then work toward positive change.

1. Allen’s sending of Capt. Daniel Nimham, Stockbridge Mohican, to the Seven Nations in May 1775, wasn’t as much to recruit the Abenaki to the American side as it was to assure their neutrality. Further, the emissaries never made it to Caughnawaga; they were captured, convicted as spies, and nearly hung. Ethan Allen never was a true friend of the Abenaki; when members of the Missisquoi band returned to Swanton after the war, Allen ran them off, claiming it belonged to him.

2. The writer continues to work the Stockbridge Mohican angle – for some reason – claiming their territory ran up Lake Champlain to Missisquoi and east to Middlebury Center. Rather, it is widely understood – including by the Native nations themselves – that Mohican homelands meet those of the Abenaki near the juncture of lakes George and Champlain – nearly 100 miles further south.

3. The Stockbridge Mohican brigade never fought at the Battle of Bennington. They set off for the engagement late, and upon receiving word, turned back to their homes to (sadly) fight another day elsewhere.

4. Vermont’s granting in 1781 of what became Marshfield, Vermont to the Stockbridge for war services rendered was no solace or gain; they immediately were forced to trade it for debt payment to Capt. Isaac Marsh, tavern-keeper back in Stockbridge. For their troubles, most of the tribe eventually found themselves displaced 750 miles to the west.

5. Ethan Allen went before the Continental Congress in person more than once. Examples are easily documented: On June 23, 1775, Allen with Seth Warner appeared in Philadelphia to ask that the Green Mountain Boys be recognized as a regiment.

6. The Green Mountain Boys, in their several iterations, cannot be conflated with Roger’s Rangers, but there certainly was significant overlap. Members of Allen’s original Boys as well as former Rangers served together in Warner’s Extra-Continental Regiment in the Revolution.

Rich Holschuh,

Wantastegok/Brattleboro, June 29, 2020

>>This letter ran in the Brattleboro Reformer on July 7, 2020.

Change, and the Lack Thereof


…Thinking again about the repetition of parallel patterns in contemporary America (as a political construct) and its direct predecessors in Colonial policy right here in the mid-Kwenitekw valley. The link is the continuance of colonization as policy.

The dogmatic appeals to “Law and Order”, rather than justice, equity, and human decency distinctly echo the dispossession of Native land and the commodification of life here through the imposed structure of English (now, American) law. Social interactions between Indigenous people and Settler society were subject to English legal standards, heard in colonial courts, with self-affirming repercussions. Even more overtly, concepts of land usage and entitlement were built upon the same imposition of invasive legal/religious/social values and the reinforcing structural systems that backed them up.

When “might makes right” rather than “respect recognizes rights”, there is a self-serving abuse of power and domination. An exploitive system needs constant “taking.” It happened then, it is happening now. For Indigenous people, it is always about the Land. Right here, in this place – that fact has never changed. While we clearly recognize and oppose the injustices so clearly on broad display around us, and rightly so, do we see that continuing under our own feet? Does “charity begin at home” or not? The system is still protecting what it has taken.

Valley Post: Comments on Northern Hydro

From a contribution to a column by Eesha Williams (Editor) in the Valley Post, linked here.

Native Americans are trying to stop a plan to send hydro-power from Canada to Massachusetts. They have a web site at www.NorthEastMegaDamResistance.org.

Rich Holschuh lives in Brattleboro and, with seven other people, [serves on] …the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs. That’s part of the state government. In an April 30 interview with the Valley Post, he said, “Indigenous people worldwide share the common experience of colonization. Colonization is the process of appropriating a place for one’s own use, exercising control by force for the benefit of the newcomer…. The original inhabitants of a place consider themselves to be a single entity: the people and the land are the same. It is a network of sustained, interdependent relationships overlapping with others in a balanced, self-supporting continuum. This balance is disrupted and harmed when those relationships are disregarded, by manipulation and appropriation for externalized profit. Colonization is not a historical event; it is an ongoing system, with lasting damage to the subjects while continuing to accrue benefit to the takers.”

Holschuh continued, “What is happening in the northeastern reaches of this continent, with massive hydroelectric development and export of energy to markets elsewhere, much of it in New England, derives from the same mindset that created the antecedent hydro facilities here on the Kwenitekw (Connecticut) river, and across the continent in the realization of so-called Manifest Destiny. The natural abundance of earth — the gift of Creation — has been coerced, privatized, commodified, extracted, and sold, without due regard for the lasting effects of that interruption of the sustaining cycles. The indigenous people of these places are implicated equally, left outside of consideration, with the network of relationships that constitutes their existence grievously harmed.”

Holschuh said, “The northern mega-dams may seem out-of-sight, and thus out-of-mind, not important or impactful to lives proceeding apace to the south in New England. Vermont, in its claims to cleaner, greener policy, derives a significant portion of its electrical energy demand from facilities such as those of Hydro-Quebec. This is projected to increase as the state adjusts its goals away from less-desirable sources through the Comprehensive Energy Plan. The issue has been raised with Lt. Governor Zuckerman’s Vermont 2050 Planning Group — it’s a very real exacerbation of an existing policy flaw. A reliance on imported energy, and its associated human and environmental costs, has been a contested issue in the past, and it should/will be again soon. This is not a problem in somebody else’s backyard. It is a problem of our own making and it is a repetition of what has and is happening right here in the homelands of the Abenaki and their kin. If we are being honest, this connection and the dynamics that effect it are easily recognized. What happens to one, happens to us all. And so, I recognize All My Relations and ask that together we seek balance and exercise compassion, seeing that there is a better way.”

High Country News: Land Grant University Investigation

The results of a momentous 2-year research project into the implications of Indigenous Land appropriation and redistribution through the Morrill Act of 1862, documented in a series of articles in High Country News that began March 30, 2020.

A lot to digest here…

The Other Side of Plymouth Rock

david brule joe graveline nolumbeka river stories

“…Native Americans in the Valley and elsewhere in New England are looking at the [Plymouth] 400th anniversary through a different lens. For them, Plymouth Colony was the opening chapter of a far grimmer story, one in which regional tribes would be stricken by European diseases such as smallpox, forced from their land, and finally decimated by the violence of King Philip’s War in 1675-1676. It’s a fraught memorial, much like 2019, which marked 400 years since the introduction of African slaves to North America.”

Read the full story in The Recorder.

This Land Is Whose Land? Indian Country and the Shortcomings of Settler Protest


Mali Obomsawin has hit this one out of the park. She brings these truths home to Ndakinna and holds them up clear, bright, and strong. All I can ask is “Read this through carefully, take it to heart, and share widely.” It is ALWAYS about the Land and the People, inseparable.

Why do so few Americans know about Indian Country? Because the government continues to fight Native nations for land. Because American patriotism would be compromised by a full picture of American history. Because there is no one to hold patriotic historians accountable for writing Native people out of history books. The legal and moral foundation of this country is fragile, and by erasing Native people from the public consciousness, the slippery topic of “whose land is whose land,” (and why and how?), can be sidestepped altogether.

Ignorance is an accessible popular tool: it doesn’t require citizens to take up arms, acknowledge or interact with the intended target, leave their comfort zones, or jeopardize their status. As a weapon, ignorance is cheap, deniable, and nearly impossible to trace. Finally, ignorance is passively consumed and passively reproduced, cinching Native invisibility.

Link to the complete article in Smithsonian Folklife.

Full article as pdf: This Land Is Whose Land

It Is Done: Gov. Phil Scott Signs S.68 Into Law May 6, 2019

Yesterday, May 6, 2019, Vermont’s Governor Philip J. Scott signed S.68 “An act regarding Indigenous Peoples’ Day” into law, without prior notice. Although the opportunity of a ceremonial signing has been denied, the objective has been realized. We will be able to tell a more complete story going forward. Christopher Columbus is an incontrovertible part of that story, but he has come to represent the onslaught of colonization and destruction with (dis)respect to those who where already here. And are still here. And whose resilience and understanding is witness to the efficacy of their relationship to this land. This is cause for recognition and honoring.
Received today, via Rep. Brian Cina, from the staff of VT Governor Phil Scott:
From: Smith, Kendal <Kendal.Smith@vermont.gov>
Sent: Tuesday, May 7, 2019 10:31 AM
To: Smith, Kendal
Subject: Action taken by the Governor on bill – May 6, 2019

Good Morning All,

The Governor has informed the Senate that on the on the 6th day of May, 2019, he signed bills originating in the Senate of the following titles:

S.53        An act relating to determining the proportion of health care spending allocated to primary care

S.68        An act relating to Indigenous Peoples’ Day

S.89        An act relating to allowing reflective health benefit plans at all metal levels

The Governor has informed the House of Representatives that on the 6th day of May, 2019, he signed bills originating in the House of the following titles:

H.204    An act relating to miscellaneous provisions affecting navigators, Medicaid records, and the Department of Vermont Health Access

H.321    An act relating to aggravated murder for killing a firefighter or an emergency medical provider

Testimony for VT S.68, An Act Regarding Indigenous Peoples’ Day

Video links for ORCA Media/CCTV coverage of Committee hearings – testimony and debate – for S.68  of the 2019-2020 Session.

1. Senate Committee on Government Operations. S.68 – Indigenous People’s Day. Recorded February 28, 2019.

2. House Committee on General, Military, and Civil Affairs. S.68 Indigenous Peoples’ Day recorded April 10, 2019.