The Business School

The Dean’s Discourse


I remember learning about Thanksgiving as a girl in elementary school. I learned about Captain Myles Standish and Governor William Bradford and how their leadership brought one hundred people to safety, ultimately landing at what we know as Plymouth. I learned of Samoset and Squanto, Indians who helped settlers grow corn, using fish to fertilize the ground. And I learned about the spirit of gratitude after that first difficult year, where a day of giving thanks was established in the fall of 1621, reaping the harvest and all breaking bread in harmony: Pilgrims and Indians happily united together. 

What I learned was embellished fantasy. I was not taught about the nations of indigenous peoples, hundreds of thousands who were displaced, colonized, wiped out by disease, enslaved, and even murdered. I was not taught that the Puritans, not Pilgrims, fled Europe for religious freedom, only to come and strip others of their right to worship as desired. Perhaps the lessons were thought to be a palatable version for children, but they were full of errors and omissions. And now with many states proposing bills designed to block teachers from teaching “divisive subjects” that cause students to feel discomfort, we will ensure that the happy fantasy version of Thanksgiving that dominated my educational experience will continue to be taught. 

As sad as this is, I still have hope. I have hope for learning, because research efforts like the University of Massachusetts’ Native American Trails Project, document the history of the indigenous nations that populated Massachusetts. Through learning, we can dispel the erroneous, glamorized history that fails to tell the story of those whose voices have been silenced. With such information, we can dedicate ourselves to re-learning, taking advantage of curated repositories as were developed for National American Indian Heritage Month. It is this history that we must share with future generations so that they can know and be reconciled with the truth. 

I have hope for acknowledgement. As we have learned the history, so many institutions have developed statements recognizing those whose land we now inhabit. For example, the WPI Land Acknowledgement states:

WPI acknowledges the painful history of genocide in the U.S. for native and indigenous peoples. As a public statement that honors the indigenous people as native inhabits on this land, WPI honors and respects the many and diverse tribal nations who were forcefully removed from their sacred lands.  

WPI would like to recognize the people of the Chaubunagungamaug and Hassanamisco Nipmuc Tribe as the traditional custodians of the land on which we work. We take this moment to honor their elders, past, present, and emerging. WPI strongly advocates for higher education professionals to honor the land, the original tribal occupants, and the history of where they are located. 

Finally, I have hope for restoration. Earlier this month, the Barre Museum returned items that had been taken from indigenous people killed at the Wounded Knee Massacre. The items had been collected by a traveling salesman and donated to the museum near the turn of the nineteenth century. But at least since the 1990s, members of the Oglala Lakota Nation have been asking for the artifacts to be returned. The museum initially resisted; however, as native leaders increased public pressure, the board voted to begin the repatriation process this year. In a statement of contrition, Board President Ann Meilus regarded the Lakota as, “A nation that has suffered a great wrong at the hands of the U.S. government for the unwarranted slaughter of its innocent people. And for that I am truly sorry.”

It is only as we learn the truth about our difficult history, acknowledge the failings of the past, and restore those who have been wronged that we can heal as a people. We cannot change the past. But our future will never move forward with hope and in a healthy manner if we cannot have the difficult conversations that free us all. This is the ground upon which thanksgiving must be built. And so built, we can come together as humanity, grateful for our heritage, culture, and the graces that make us a diverse and varied nation.

Happy Thanksgiving.