An Indigenous Peoples Day celebration at Harvard University in 2022.

Many of us were taught little Indigenous history. Share experiences and learn more at History Café

Above image: An Indigenous Peoples Day celebration at Harvard University in 2022. (Photo: Harvard University Native American Program)

By Beth Folsom

Cambridge commemorates two significant anniversaries in the next several years: On the national level, 2026 marks the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, generally thought of as the start of the American Revolution. Locally, we mark the 400th anniversary in 2030 of the founding of the place we now call Cambridge by English colonists – or colonizers. 

Both are significant and give us a chance to reflect on how we have learned the history of our city, state, country and, in particular, the role of Indigenous people in these histories.

History Cambridge is working with Indigenous scholars Sage Carbone and David Shane Lowry on an unfolding Indigenous Voices project. On May 10, our virtual History Cafe will discuss the history of Indigenous people in the area we now call Cambridge and how Native/American Indian peoples have been represented or erased in our city. Recent articles in Cambridge Day have highlighted the Indigenous history of the “Great Swamp” at Alewife and the African American & Indigenous Peoples Historical Reckoning Project, which plans to recognize the historical sites of Indigenous peoples in Cambridge and include traditional Eastern Woodland languages on city property.

But a History Cambridge survey reveals that many Cantabrigians were taught little about the experiences of the peoples who have called this place home for centuries, well before Europeans arrived. A number of respondents recalled that most, if not all, of their information about Indigenous peoples came from television, books and movies in which Native peoples were portrayed with a broad brush and not distinguished by region, language or individual culture.

Those who did learn about Indigenous stories in school remembered it as just a snippet in broader social studies classes. One respondent shares that their elementary school curriculum included a brief mention of “clothing, ‘wigwams’ and food, with illustrations of those ‘ancient times.’ All content [was] created by non-Indigenous people. The message was these people were interesting curiosities of the past.” Even those who said they studied some Indigenous history in school report that several specific narratives – most notably the “First Thanksgiving” and the stories of Indian removal in the 19th century – that dominated their study of Native peoples.

It is important to note that many of these survey respondents attended school at least several decades ago, and in places around the country (and even abroad). Our local schools have made significant progress in creating a social studies curriculum that is more inclusive of Indigenous history and more nuanced about the experiences of individual groups on the local and regional levels. But there is much more to be done, both for the young people in Cambridge and for those who grew up when Indigenous stories were not widely shared but now want to expand their knowledge and understanding.

History Cambridge invites you to take the “How Were You Taught Indigenous History?” survey and explore our Indigenous Peoples History Hub. We also welcome you to register for our May 10 History Cafe. Come with questions about this history, as our Indigenous scholars are eager to know your experiences and understandings to inform the next stage of our Indigenous Voices Project.

Beth Folsom is programs manager for History Cambridge.

This article was originally published in our “Did You Know?” column in Cambridge Day.