Beyond Plymouth Rock: Educating educators on Native Americans in New England

Just about the only time Native Americans of New England are mentioned in K-12 classrooms, it’s as part of the Thanksgiving story, according to Alice Nash; they are considered centuries-old artifacts with little relevance to American culture today. "Even Native American communities in other parts of the country don't realize there are Native American communities in New England,” Nash says. “They are still here and they are still vital."

Nash, a University of Massachusetts historian, is hoping to begin changing that misconception this summer. She and Smith College historian Neal Salisbury are leading a National Endowment for the Humanities summer institute, Native Americans of New England: A Historical Overview. Organized by the Five College Schools Partnership, the institute is drawing primary and secondary school teachers from around the country to Amherst, Massachusetts, where they will study the history and culture of the region’s indigenous peoples with Nash, Salisbury and guest lecturers from Five College campuses and beyond.

Demonstrating the broad cultural and historical impact of the region’s Native Americans, the institute will help teachers incorporate them into classroom studies beyond a Thanksgiving unit. “We are covering more than 300 years of history of native peoples that will help teachers plug them into the curriculum at any point,” says Nash.

The three-week institute is based at the University of Massachusetts’ Amherst campus and is running from July 8 through July 26. It examines the history of Native American peoples in New England through a rigorous, interdisciplinary humanities program that includes primary source analysis, museum visits and conversations with Native presenters from tribes that include Abenaki, Mashpee Wampanoag and Nipmuc.

“We view K-12 teachers as scholars in their own right, but very busy,” says Nash. “So over the course of three weeks we are going to expose them to the best scholars and the best material out there at the graduate level.”