The Merrimack River Valley in Essex County, Massachusetts, has a rich history of Indigenous people and culture dating back at least 15,000 years. It’s a history that’s not well known in the region, and one that certainly hasn’t been taught in the local elementary schools.
I’ve been teaching at the River Valley Charter School in Newburyport for more than 20 years. Our charter explicitly states that students will receive an education that is rooted in the history, culture and ecology of the Merrimack River Valley.
Since the pandemic, we’ve adopted an outdoor program of place-based education, which naturally immerses our students in local flora, fauna, ecological relationships, heritage and culture.
This approach recognizes that the place where students live and learn can be an incredibly rich source of educational opportunities and experiences, and can provide a meaningful context for learning. In Montessori, we call this the “prepared environment” and no environment is more perfectly prepared than nature itself!
Stories + Place = Engaging History
Since we follow the Montessori model, we are often engaged in “impressionistic lessons” which are thoughtfully crafted stories that engage the child’s natural sense of wonder. I have always wanted to create a robust history curriculum around the Indigenous peoples who lived in this area long before colonization.
Specific information about the Indigenous history of our area was hard to come by, as is true for much of what is now the United States. But I was fortunate to have a good friend, Kristine Malpica, who’d recently completed her master’s thesis, “Uncommon Ground: Pawtucket-Pennacook Strategic Land Exchange in Native Spaces and Colonized Places of Essex County and Massachusetts Bay in the 17th Century.” This was precisely the history I wanted to bring to the children through place-based learning!
I synthesized her thesis into age-appropropriate content, consolidating the information into stories that teachers can read to their classes and create an impression with the children that is both visual and detailed. I included pictures, maps and charts that feature the early Pawtucket settlement locations in close proximity to our school. I also suggested field trips to local areas where the history we study in class actually occurred.
By a stroke of serendipity, our outdoor site in West Newbury is very near a place called Indian Hill (on Essex County Greenbelt land), which was a Pawtucket village for more than 3,000 years. Over the years, scores of Indigenous artifacts have been discovered at this location and throughout the Merrimack River Valley.
A River Valley teacher actually found an ancient spearhead in her Groveland garden that is estimated to be approximately 8,000 years old. It’s currently displayed in the school’s lobby, along with a land acknowledgement, as a tangible connection and testament to our past.
The area below Indian Hill has since been flooded for a reservoir, but its historical significance remains and it is a designated landmark. Students learn this area was known to the Pawtucket people as “Quascacunquen,” which, loosely translated from Abenaki, means “the best place to plant corn.”
When the students learn they’re living on land considered sacred ground for growing food for thousands of years, they connect their current experiences to actual history. They become so much more engaged in the learning process and are eager to further explore the physical and cultural elements of their surroundings. Further, when they become immersed in the past, they appreciate the elements from long ago that endure today.
For instance, the corn, beans and squash that are so familiar to us in the United States, are, in fact, native to the Americas, and were developed over thousands of years under the care of indigenous farmers. These familiar crops, which Native tribes call the “Three Sisters,” are looked upon as precious gifts from the Great Spirit, even today.
Accurate History Can Spur Empathy and Action
At the same time, the students also are learning about the darker elements of our history; the colonization of this land and treatment of Indigenous people.. They learn that the “great dying” of the 1600s wasn’t just something that occurred near Plymouth Rock; it had come down from the Quebec fur traders and their Native allies before the Pilgrims even landed, and spread throughout the Northeast, killing 90% of the Indigenous population – smallpox being the likely culprit.
They learn about many injustices, including the fact that many of us of European descent had ancestors who were colonizers of people who were already here. And, along the way the older children learned the true - and uglier - version of the story of Christopher Columbus.
Learning about the bad as well as the good, however, has inspired a sense of stewardship among students, encouraging them to become more active participants in their communities.
Our students started a movement in Newburyport to change the October holiday from “Columbus Day” to “Indigenous Peoples Day.” They wrote letters to the mayor and walked to city hall to personally deliver them.
After some back and forth, the students succeeded. Not only did the city rename the holiday but students were present when the Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook-Abenaki People honored the city with the gift of a tribal flag to honor its decision. The flag is flown during Indigenous Peoples Day and throughout Native American Heritage Month each November.
Thanks to place-based education, our students recognize that honoring the history of our land and the Indigenous peoples who lived here is not something done one day, or month, per year simply because it is on the calendar. Instead, it is a mindset that fosters a sense of community and belonging.
It is a way of teaching and learning that connects students with real-world problems in their own community and allows them to work together to find a solution. By highlighting the unique history, culture and ecology of the area in which students live, place-based education curricula can promote a lifelong love of learning and a better understanding of their place in an increasingly interconnected world.