Head of School Blog: On Campus Dedication

Matt Green
Good morning everyone.  I trust you enjoyed your day off yesterday.  It is of course well-timed, about five weeks into the school year; the shiny newness of the year has subsided, the work is, perhaps, getting real, mornings are a little darker.  A three-day weekend was just what the doctor ordered.   I wonder, however, how many of us thought deeply about why we had it? 

This particular Monday off has a rather complicated history.  The federal government recognizes the second Monday in October as Columbus Day.  The State of Massachusetts does as well, with the exception of the towns of Cambridge, Somerville, and Marblehead, which I will come to in a moment.  But first a little history of Columbus Day in the US I dug up this weekend.  

There is evidence that Columbus Day was observed here as far back as 1792, 300 years after the anniversary of the arrival of Columbus in North America, in what is now known as the Bahamas.  I guess it makes sense that a nation, a little more than 10 years old and in the process of deepening roots in a new home, would choose to celebrate the voyage and the voyager who made it possible. Fast forward another hundred years, when President Benjamin Harrison declared October 12 a one-time national holiday as a gesture in recognition of the Italian-American community in the aftermath of an incident in New Orleans during which a mob lynched 11 Italian immigrants.  (I, for one, did not know that.)  I  guess it makes sense that an oppressed ethnic community would choose to celebrate proudly this impactful explorer from their country of origin. But Columbus Day as a national holiday did not officially exist until 1968. I did not know that either.  

So depending on how you look at it, Columbus Day is either a really old holiday or a relatively new one and, depending on how you look at it, Columbus himself is either someone worthy of annual recognition or the complete opposite, someone whose arrival ushered in an era by which the various indigenous peoples of the western hemisphere, by some estimates north of 50 million strong at the time, were systematically displaced, often enslaved, and all but destroyed.   

Which brings me back to the towns of Cambridge, Somerville, and Marblehead, and a lot of other municipalities, as well as schools and colleges, across the land, who choose to recognize the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples’ Day.  What’s this have to do with us, you may wonder?  Well, the Cape and the Islands happen to be a region particularly rich in Native American history and culture, which,  given place names like Pocasset, Monomoy, Mashpee, Sippewissett, Sagamore,  may not surprise you.  For thousands of years, the Wampanoag Nation occupied the coastal area from Provincetown to Narragansett Bay, fishing and foraging these coastal waters. 

Like many first nation people, the Wampanoag lost their lands, which were sometimes purchased but more often just taken by the English colonists. From 1615 to 1619, the Wampanoag also suffered a pandemic of their own, or at least an epidemic, long suspected to be smallpox.  Later fighting in King Philip's War (1675–1676) resulted in the death of 40 percent of the surviving tribe. 

Indigenous people, however, are not merely characters in history books. Slightly more than 2,000 Wampanoags are counted as enrolled members of the nation today and many live on Martha's Vineyard in or near the town of Aquinnah.  And the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe which consists of more than 1,400 enrolled members is located of course mostly in Mashpee.  Across this land,  indigenous people continue to demonstrate their talents and gifts despite obstacles that are perhaps less pernicious than war or disease, but that are still very real. They are our neighbors and actually our classmates and they too are worth celebrating.  

Coincidentally, October 15, just three days after this rather complicated holiday, was the day the official dedication of our campus took place back in 1989.  Other than knowing that it was generously gifted to us by the Lilly family, I do not yet know enough about the history of this land-  a project for another day- but I do think it's very likely that our campus sits on land once inhabited by the Wampanoag.  And so I will conclude by simply acknowledging that likelihood,  honoring with gratitude the people who have cared for it throughout the generations, commit myself to learning more about how we can be better stewards of the land we inhabit and continue to build relationships with our local Native American and Indigenous communities.

What to call the second Monday in October is perhaps a longer conversation, but for now, a step in the right direction just might be to make it a tradition on October 15 to celebrate Falmouth Academy’s Campus Dedication Day by also celebrating the land on which it sits.
© Falmouth Academy. All Rights Reserved.