Rivers Marks Native American Heritage Month on Several Fronts

In recent years, it’s become increasingly popular to acknowledge that much of what we think we know about Native identity in the U.S. is wrong or incomplete. Recent research indicates that the “first Thanksgiving” was not necessarily the feast between settlers and Indigenous people that it is often understood to be and that there is still much we don’t know about what actually took place in 1621. Native Americans are not figures from the distant past but modern people living in every U.S. state. They don’t conform to Disney-informed images ranging from Tiger Lily to Pocahontas or resemble athletic mascots in feather headdresses.
But what can or should replace these outmoded cliches? How can we reach a more accurate understanding of Native cultures and concerns? That was the overarching theme of Rivers’s month-long programming tied to Native American Heritage Month in November.
At a November all-school meeting, guest speaker Jordan Clark, a member of the Wampanoag Tribe of Aquinnah and a history teacher at the Cambridge School of Weston, cautioned audience members not to replace one set of stereotypes with another. “Be wary of the simple story,” he said, noting that there is no one way to describe or understand the diverse peoples who are classified as Native Americans. “I am not the end point but the starting point,” said Clark, as he urged students to gather information from a range of perspectives. “When we think about decolonizing, it’s about finding many voices from multiple sources.”
Addressing the specific topic of traditional cliches about “Indians,” Clark said, “False and incomplete narratives frame not only how we see Native people but how we treat them.” He cited Abraham Lincoln’s signing of an 1862 mass execution order, putting 38 Dakota Sioux men to death, and spoke of how members of the Wampanoag Tribe of Aquinnah sheltered fugitive slaves before the Civil War. “It’s not that our history is incorrect,” said Clark, “it’s that it’s incomplete,” with stories that are told from a single perspective.
Clark also touched on the subject of Native people considered “two spirit”—that is, outside the gender binary. Such people have been traditionally not just accepted but respected within their culture, said Clark, tying his presentation into Rivers’s DEI theme for the current school year, gender diversity.
History department chair Andrea Diaz, who also serves as Upper School DEI coordinator, said later, “I thought his presentation really resonated with students.” Diaz said she had had three hopes for the talk—that Jordan would share his own experiences, discuss the 400th anniversary of Thanksgiving (occurring this year), and speak to gender issues—and, she said, “He hit all three effectively.”
Later the same day, a group of Upper School students headed to Regis College for a “Weston walk” organized by Middle School DEI coordinator Sydnie Schwarz. Schwarz explained that she spent time over the summer pondering “how our institution could be more critically conscious of what role we play in this legacy of stolen land and colonization.” The land where Rivers now stands, she said, was once occupied by the Pawtucket, Massachusett, and Nipmuc people: “We don’t expect institutions to suddenly give their land back, but rather to think about whose land we are on, in a way that goes beyond performative land acknowledgments.”
The Upper Schoolers met with students from the Cambridge School of Weston and with Regis’s chief diversity officer, said Schwarz, to discuss “what narratives we’ve been told about the origins of the school and how it got its land, and what narratives relate to Native people.” They came up with a list of “action steps,” ranging from land acknowledgments to promoting a range of resources to making public note of the fact that before Rivers’s sports teams were the Red Wings, they were the Red Men.
Most important, says Schwarz, is that these efforts aren’t “one and done, or just for this year. It’s stimulating thought and conversation on campus to bring about change.” Diaz noted that the DEI department is generally making greater use of the cultural calendar, which runs through the year and marks such occasions as Hispanic and Latinx Heritage Month, Native American Heritage Month, and LGBTQ+ Month, among others. “This year, it’s much more of a comprehensive, thoughtful, dedicated approach to the cultural calendar, not simply paying lip service to these heritage months but actually expanding our understanding,” said Diaz.
Earlier in the month, history faculty member Ben Leeming led a faculty “critical conversations” session focusing on “three shifts” that need to take place in our understanding of Native Americans: the shift from past to present tense; from tribes to sovereign nations; and from “real Indians” to Native Americans. He described those areas as “blind spots” that keep non-Natives from truly seeing the Indigenous people around us. And while some of these shifts might appear to be simply semantic, said Leeming, “Language shapes laws and countries, and forms the minds of generations.”
But for all the challenges, all the erasures, all the discrimination experienced by Native Americans, Clark, in his presentation to the school, cautioned against seeing Native people through the lens of pity. “We also want to focus on examples of triumph and success,” he said. “You don’t want to create victims out of people who don’t see themselves that way.”