"The ugly reality of what America’s Indigenous people experienced is one of bounties, extermination, family dissolution, forced assimilation and, yet, resilience."
In this Nov. 23, 2021, file photo, Dawn Neptune Adams holds a copy of the Phips Proclamation of 1755 in Bangor. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

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We just celebrated Thanksgiving, a holiday set aside for giving thanks, eating too much and, for many of us, a day when we remember a whitewashed version of America’s early days.

Most of us, as children, were told the tale of a wondrous feast where America’s Indigenous people shared their bounty with recent arrivals, settlers from Europe, who were not prepared for the harsh winter. It was a story of goodwill and sharing.

And, for many of us, it was about the only thing we “learned” about our country’s diverse Indigenous people.

Our fixation on the happy Thanksgiving story has allowed us, for centuries, to gloss over a much darker, but truer, story of the mistreatment of America’s Indigenous people, a people who are very much still a part of our country and its past, present and future.

The ugly reality of what America’s Indigenous people experienced is one of bounties, extermination, family dissolution, forced assimilation and, yet, resilience.

This is the message of a recent documentary film about Maine’s Wabanaki people.

Bounty” centers on a 1755 proclamation that offered bounties for the scalps of Penobscot people. In the film, several Penobscot Nation families read the proclamation in the room where it was signed, in the Old State House in Boston.

The Phips proclamation required citizens of the province of Massachusetts to take every opportunity for “pursuing, capturing, killing and destroying every and all” of the Penobscot people, who were called “enemies, rebels and traitors.” Bounties were offered for the scalps of Penobscot people, as proof of their murders.

“You would sell me?” Layla Bear asks her mother, Maulian Dana, after hearing the prices offered for the scalps of Penobscot children.

No, Dana, the nation’’s ambassador, said she would not sell Layla. But she explained that there were trading posts set up where people could bring the scalps and bodies of Penobscots, to be tallied up like animal skins.

The images and words are hard to see and hear. I now know this history, but as a white woman, it is not, in many ways, my reality. My ancestors weren’t hunted for their scalps (many were murdered in Europe for their religion, but that is a different story). I don’t bear the scars of this American history.

Yet, it was my government, of white people, who centuries ago proclaimed that Indigenous people — “savages” as they were often called — should be removed from the American landscape. It was a genocide. Thankfully, it failed.

“It makes me realize how resilient our people are … and how we’re still here,” Dana’s daughter, Carmella Bear, says after hearing the proclamation.

But what does it mean for those of us who are not indigenous to the United States?

“We don’t want you to feel responsible for the actions of your ancestors. We don’t want you to feel guilty about the atrocities that were committed by your ancestors,” Dawn Neptune Adams, a co-creator of the film, says during an introductory video.

“But we want you to know about it first and foremost. And we’d also like you to dismantle the systems that they created and that you benefit from.”

That’s a tall order for many people who may feel far removed from the horrific treatment highlighted in “Bounty.” So, let’s take it piece by piece.

First, more people need to know this history, yet even something as straightforward as the required teaching of Wabanaki history in Maine schools is uneven. A recent report found that many school districts were falling short of a 21-year-old law aimed at ensuring Maine students know the history, culture and, frankly, the existence of the the Penobscot Nation, the Passamaquoddy Tribe, Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians and Mi’kmaq Nation. Films like “Bounty,” which is accompanied by lots of educational material, can help schools meet the law.

Beyond this school mandate, Mainers should make the effort to educate themselves about the real history of America’s mistreatment of Indigenous people. As the creators of “Bounty” say, this history is difficult and unpleasant, but knowing it is essential.

It is essential so Mainers can support and advocate for policies to improve the lives of all people here, including the Wabanaki, who continue to lag in areas such as health, economic well-being and education.

Watching a movie isn’t going to right centuries of wrongs. But it can educate and raise awareness — and that’s an important start.

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Susan Young

Susan Young is the opinion editor at the Bangor Daily News. She has worked for the BDN for over 25 years as a reporter and editor.