History is often written by the victors, as the saying goes. It’s because of this that we recognize November as the month of Thanksgiving, where we feast with loved ones in remembrance of the first meeting between the English pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe.
The feel-good part of the holiday is that the colonists and the Native Americans learned a lot from each other and shared a meal that lasted three days.
The less feel-good part of this story is, of course, the colonization of native people that followed and the inhumane ways Native Americans have been treated in this country since.
In an effort to share both sides of this complicated history, November is recognized nationally as Native American Indian Heritage Month, a designation made in 1990 by George H.W. Bush and continued through our current administration.
Massie Heritage Center observes Native American Indian Heritage Month with a special event this Saturday, just in time for a well-rounded view of Thanksgiving.
Over the past year, Massie has been remodeling their exhibit, “American Indians of the Southeast Coast,” which traces indigenous people from our area over thousands of years. Their work is on view Saturday, along with Native American activities.
Steve Smith, Curator of Massie Heritage Center, says the remodeling consisted primarily of additional research.
“We used a lot of the original resources that were in the old exhibition, but mainly did a lot more research with a greater focus on coastal Native Americans and how their technology changed over time,” explains Smith.
The exhibit features the five periods of Native American culture as designated by archaeologists: the Paleo-Indian period, around 20,000 years ago; Archaic, 10,000 years ago; Woodland, 3,000 years ago; Mississippian, 1,000 years ago; and the historic period, which began in the 1500s. In the exhibit, Massie breaks down by period how Native American culture and technology changed.
The exhibit also focuses of the Guale tribe, who occupied the Southeastern coast for many years before colonists arrived.
“The main focus is on the Guale tribe once we get to the historic period,” says Smith. “We do have information on older cultures, but we don’t necessarily know their tribal names because there was no historic record of that. But we focus on the Guale and how their culture was impacted once the Spanish arrived in the 1500s, and also the English and the French as well.”
As Smith explains, the Guale became dependent on European trade business, were affected by foreign diseases, and began to abandon their traditional culture. The name “Guale” could be the origin of the name “Gullah,” as they both have roots in the same region, and the Gullah-Geechee people are a major aspect of Lowcountry culture.
Since Massie Heritage Center is part of the school system, their work often enhances the curriculum.
“For a long time, people dated the beginning of Georgia in 1733, when Oglethorpe came here with the colonists,” says Smith, “but the trend over the past several decades has been to focus more on what was going on before Oglethorpe got here. That, of course, involves a lot of Native American history, but there’s a heightened focus on Native American history at the elementary school level.”
Smith shares that the Native American colonial history is a major component of the third-grade curriculum and that the Native American Cultures program is their most popular, so remodeling the exhibition was a natural choice.
On Saturday, visitors can take advantage of a fee-free day and go on a guided interpretation of the exhibit through the day. There are also Native American activities, like making a pinch pot, playing the game chunkee, and a demonstration of the wattle and daub technique of building homes.
“We also have this really awesome Native American interpreter and impersonator who will come, and he’ll do a demonstration about traditional skills among Native American like flint knapping, Native American cooking, and how they processed deer hides,” explains Smith. “He’s highly skilled at traditional skills of Native Americans.”
The exhibition’s remodel and reveal comes at the perfect time to learn more about Native American people and their contributions beyond just the Thanksgiving story.
“I’m very happy that now we have November set aside as Native American Indian Heritage Month,” says Smith. “There’s a greater focus on their culture and their contribution to our history.”