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.

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.

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

Kikas: Field Maker Moon

The fifth month of the Abenaki annual cycle – Kikas – is well underway now. The new moon following Sogalikas (fourth month) occurred on May 4, 2019 here in Sokwakik. In Western Abenaki, Kikas means “field maker moon.” It is pronounced kee-KAHS. The word is formed polysynthetically with the combination of  the morphemes ki(k) (earth or field or planting) + as (maker), and moon by inference. The full moon (who bestows her name upon the month) showed her face two days ago, on May 18, 2019.

Around 1645, trader William Pynchon at his Agawam trading post (near what is now Springfield, Massachusetts), a little further down the Kwenitekw from Sokwakik, recorded this month as Squannikesos. From Day, this appears as the Abenaki phrase for Spring Moon, as Sigwanikizos: sigwan (spring) + i (connector) + kizos (full moon). This is another way to note the time when planting is done.

It is important to keep in mind that several terms were used by various related peoples at sundry times, often overlapping or substituting. These are not hard and fast boundaries; the lunar cycle shifts each year, as do cultural activities with the seasons and the immediate weather patterns. For instance, the month at or preceding the current one (roughly May) according to Pynchon’s list is Namasakizos – “the fish moon” – from namasak (fish, plural) + kizos (full moon). This was, of course, in direct reference to the abundant migration of anadromous schools coming up the River to spawn: shad, salmon, sturgeon, lamprey, and herring. This was a time for gratitude and celebration, both on the land and in the waters.

Sigwan, the bursting forth…

Here We Are: with Wendy O’Connell on BCTV

Here We Are” is a weekly half-hour talk show (interview/conversation) on Brattleboro Community Television,  conceived and hosted by Wendy O’Connell. Wendy interviewed me in early December and the show is now post-production and was released for airing and on Youtube on Dec. 31, 2018. Wliwni Wendy!

Askwa nd’aoldibna iodali – we are still here.

BCTV link here.

Youtube link here.

Abenaki-Inspired Poster to Emphasize Respect for Land

Chief Don Stevens with poster

Advocates for racial justice in Vermont hope that a recently created poster will soon be seen in schools, libraries, town offices and small businesses all over the state. The poster reads: “Please respect and protect N’Dakinna (our land) while you are here. This is the homeland of the Western Abenaki People.”

The wording and imagery on the poster was chosen with great care by Don Stevens, chief of the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk Abenaki Nation, who worked with Quebec based Nulhegan Abenaki artist Jon Guilbault to make sure that the most important Abenaki cultural symbols would occupy a prominent place in the artwork.

“It is important to remember that we are but stewards of this land we occupy and are only one part of the web of life,” Chief Stevens said. “What we do to the earth, we do to ourselves. This poster is a reminder that the creator gave the Western Abenaki the responsibility to care for our land and in turn would provide for our needs. Once the land was taken from us, we could no longer fulfill this responsibility. We ask that you respect and protect the land so it will continue to provide for us all.“

See the full article in the Addison Independent.


Possession, a War That Never Ends.

A line from “Crazy Horse”, a song by John Trudell, from his 2001 album “Bone Days.”
Possession, the concept of holding control over something, as in the “ownership” of land, devolves from power structures. It is the exercise of strength through force (by various means, be they physical, financial, legal, psychological, spiritual) by one entity over another. It requires a constant application of those energies to maintain (defend) its dominant position. It is a slow, steady aggression – a war that never ends – because it does not come from a place of balance, but rather from imposition. Balance is the nature of peace, when things are at rest, maintaining equilibrium, in proper relationship. When relationship is honored, and we acknowledge our gratitude for the gifts (all of them) that enter our lives, the war subsides. They are gifts, not possessions gained by the exercising of power. The understanding of this is the great responsibility of our time – truly, of all time. We do not own anything – we are, all of us, in this together here and now.

Justin Smith Morrill and the Land Grant College Act

ustin Smith Morrill Mathew Brady

Justin Smith Morrill is often called the father of America’s land grant college and university system, which at first blush can seem a little odd. As a U.S. representative from Vermont, Morrill didn’t come up with the idea or actually write the Land Grant College Act. But like some of his congressional colleagues, Morrill got credit for the achievement. In fact, the act establishing the system was named the Morrill Act.

His bill called for the federal government to grant land to each of the states to establish public colleges that would teach courses in fields like agriculture and engineering as an alternative to the classical curriculum offered by the existing church-affiliated schools. The bill gave states the option of either building the school on the land or selling the land and using the proceeds to finance a new school elsewhere.

Read the full article by Mark Bushnell at VTDigger.org.

Brief commentary:

The Land Grant University system (with 76 institutions) was created by the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890,  and – somewhat ironically – expanded with 29 (now 32) tribal educational institutions in 1994. The University of Vermont (known as UVM, founded in 1791) became the state’s sole land grant school in 1865, when the university merged with Vermont Agricultural College (itself chartered in November 22, 1864, after the passage of the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act), emerging as the University of Vermont and State Agricultural College.

Originally, “each eligible state received a total of 30,000 acres (120 km2) of federal land, either within or contiguous to its boundaries, for each member of congress the state had as of the census of 1860. This land, or the proceeds from its sale, was to be used toward establishing and funding the educational institutions described above.” As revised, “If the federal land within a state was insufficient to meet that state’s land grant, the state was issued “scrip” which authorized the state to select federal lands in other states to fund its institution. For example, New York carefully selected valuable timber land in Wisconsin to fund Cornell University.” (Wikipedia)

Vermont, having no qualifying Federal land within its own borders, and with five members in Congress at the time (2 senators and 3 representatives, one of whom was Morrill himself), was granted nearly 150,000 acres elsewhere in scrip, to use according to the purposes of the Morrill Act of 1862. This gets tricky when one stops to consider where this self-styled Federal Land was originating: it was mostly confiscated “Indian Land” – acquired through removal, war, subterfuge, intrusion, and broken treaties. In other words, another chapter in a long story of cultural genocide in the name of Manifest Destiny. Most remote land grants of this immediate period were located in Minnesota and Wisconsin, a result of, among others, the Dakota and Black Hawk Wars. President Abraham Lincoln, who signed the Morrill Act of 1862, served in the Black Hawk War and presided over the Dakota Wars. Vermont’s allotments were probably among these taken lands. Exactly where, and whose lands they rightfully were, is a matter for further research in the National Archives. The 149,920 acres were sold for $122,626 and the proceeds used to fund the newly combined “University of Vermont and the State Agricultural College.” It seems likely this was blood money.

More to come.