Native American Heritage Day observed

  • One of two markers — located adjacent to each other near the Green River Swimming and Recreation Area and clearly visible along Nashs Mill Road in Greenfield — that identify the area as where Capt. William Turner likely lost his life during the colonists’ retreat from The Battle of Great Falls. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

Recorder Staff
Published: 11/24/2017 9:51:22 PM

TURNERS FALLS — Indigenous tribes called Franklin County home long before European colonizers landed in North America. Native American Heritage Day, observed since 2008 on the day after Thanksgiving, is an opportunity to recognize and discuss that history.

“We have this single day, Friday, Native American Heritage Day, which was designated by an act of Congress in 2008 — relatively recently,” said Rich Holschuh, who is from the Elnu Abenaki tribe. Abenaki homeland ran north to the St. Lawrence River in Canada, and south to Deerfield, with Turners Falls being “the nexus for all tribes in that area,” according to Holschuh.

Holschuh also serves on the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs.

The resolution for Native American Heritage Day, signed by President George W. Bush, acknowledges Native people “for their contributions to the United States as local and national leaders, artists, athletes, and scholars.” Local advocates focus on a darker side of American history.

“It is with great sadness that we look back, just on the last 340 years, since this peaceful area of shared resources was witness to a terrible massacre of refugees from the regional war that was going on over who would control the land,” said David Detmold, representing the Nolumbeka Project, a non-tribal organization advocating for New England’s Native American tribes.

Detmold referred to The Battle of Great Falls, a decisive fight of King Philip’s War that took place on the banks of the Connecticut River between present-day Gill and Montague. He noted the Nolumbeka Project is part of a group studying the battle through a National Parks Service grant.

At dawn on May 19, 1676, an armed band of English colonists led by Captain William Turner attacked the village Peskeompscut near the Connecticut River, killing “mostly old men, women and children. About 400 of them were killed that morning,” Detmold continued. Native warriors camped nearby rallied and chased the colonists away, killing about 50 percent of them, including Turner.

Native American Heritage Day always follows Thanksgiving, which Holschuh noted paints a “rosy” picture of early European colonization. Because of that, native people presently living in New England face unique challenges because entire tribes were either killed or driven out by settlers hundreds of years ago. Their experiences aren’t at the forefront of American conversation.

“The story that’s told in American history is mostly lacking as far as Native American people go. Here in New England, and we’re one region of the country, we tend to look at our history in terms of British settlement,” Holschuh continued.

While the holiday is a step in the right direction to bring attention to Native history, which stretches back a lot further than that of the United States, Holschuh said it’s retrospective and doesn’t necessarily honor current Native culture. Because of that, Holschuh said it’s easy to think of indigenous people historically instead of in the present.

“Those people were here. They’d been here for 10,000 years — that’s a pretty deep history — they weathered this onslaught that came in at the time of colonization. And they’re still here. This is the part people don’t get. They think of the history of indigenous people as in the past,” Holschuh said. In the future, Holschuh said he’d like to see more steps taken at a national level to recognize Native history — for example: changing Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day.

Among minorities in America, Native Americans top several notable lists. Holschuh said they have the highest percentage, per capita, of volunteering for the armed forces. Natives also have the highest numbers of incarceration, suicide, high school dropouts, diabetes, and alcoholism. Also, indigenous people weren’t granted religious freedom until the late 1970s, he added.

“You can go on and on. And this is the story we don’t want to look at, or talk about. But we’ve got to start somewhere,” Holschuh said. “This is the problem — looking back at Native Americans in a heritage manner — because you freeze them in time. You don’t allow them their humanity. Today’s native people are just like you and I. Just like everyone else. They deserve all the respect, as does anyone else, and they deserve to be themselves.”

While modern Americans didn’t participate in colonization and can’t change history, Holschuh said it’s everyone’s responsibility to make sure all people, not just Natives, are treated with respect and equality.

“My single best suggestion as to what can be done on a federal level: educate. If you asked the average person in Greenfield to name the native people who lived here for thousands of years, less than five percent would know. They’re not taught that,” he said. “Native American people have always been here. And they are still here. And that’s why it matters — it’s not just a nice story. It’s ongoing reality.”

You can reach Andy Castillo


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