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Coming to Understand My Whitewashed Education

by Olivia Eckert

As I write this on Indigenous People’s Day, an officially recognized holiday in the state of Maine, I struggle to understand why I grew up being taught by my primary school teachers that I should revere Christopher Columbus as a hero. Americans were taught to idolize him as a great explorer, and to credit him for the discovery of this land. I falter in my comprehension of many things I was taught as a child. My education simplified our arrival on this land to Native people welcoming us with open arms, teaching us the methods of hunt and harvest. I was taught that Thanksgiving was a day that the two parties came together, made peace, and moved forward in union. Around the time of the Thanksgiving season, my majorly white and wealthy public school banded together teachers, parents, and students to enjoy a mock Thanksgiving. We made paper headdresses, beaded necklaces, and dream catchers to learn about Indian culture.  It wasn’t until I moved to Maine from Connecticut to pursue an education in social work that I learned the truth behind Columbus Day. 

I distinctly remember being in my freshman English 100 class when my professor announced the impending holiday, referring to it as Indigenous Peoples Day. From that moment on, I continued to learn about the truth behind American history.  

In my high school curriculum, this miseducation was never remedied. I was never taught about any of the basic history that would have been appropriately digested by high school students. I’ve been working with Wabanaki REACH through my senior field practicum as a social work intern where my mind is being blown by the unveiling of simple facts. Recently I had the pleasure of attending a session of Interacting with Wabanaki-Maine History and was then given the opportunity to manage the technology for this virtual program. These opportunities provided a mindful and safe place to digest all the information I was being exposed to for the first time. The highly interactive program covers a multitude of realities faced by the Indigenous people of Maine. This includes conversation surrounding the initial arrival of Europeans on Native land, as well as the harmful events that continue to take place. I learned about the Great Dying, land treaties, infected blankets, the residential schools, along with so much more that is best understood by experiencing the teachings of this program, my articulation cannot do it justice. This successful, empowering intervention strategy has opened my eyes and continues to inform multitudes of individuals in a manner that never fails to display the resiliency of the Wabanaki people. 

Through engagement in many aspects of REACH’s work and focus on truth and healing, I’ve come to understand that if our society continues to build upon roots that hide the truth of the harm we have caused to Native Americans, we will never find our society in a state of equity. I’m considerably frustrated with the betrayal of my education now that I’m conscious of the gaps, for I feel if we had been aware of the truth, more reconciliation would have been accomplished by now. White-washed curriculum was built to silence the realities of the continuous, systemic oppression that the United States has been built upon. 

The state of racism is being perpetuated by a lack of knowledge that covers basic facts in our history. Without confronting this presence in our society, we will never progress to a more equitable future, therefore change is being halted by the consistently ignorant state of how we teach about the realities of racism that are still prevalent.  

The work of Wabanaki REACH pursues this advocacy and change, and I must note is extremely successful in their execution. At least from my experience and perspective, REACH is leading the way for us to confront the truth of what happened when Europeans came to this country and called stolen land their home. I feel honored to be placed with an agency making such incredible strides in the fight for acknowledgement, truth, healing, and change.  

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Olivia Eckert recently joined our team for the academic year as an intern from the University of Maine School of Social Work, where she is a senior in the Bachelor’s degree program. Olivia’s interests in macro social work practice, community organizing, and social justice are a natural fit for Wabanaki REACH and we are happy to be able to provide her with diverse learning opportunities.  

Olivia spends her summers in her hometown of Collinsville, CT working at a camp for children who struggle with behavioral issues. When in Orono, she serves as President of the University Maine Peace Action Committee and is the Wellness Director in her Sorority. Olivia plans to attend graduate school and become a resident of Maine, where she is taking full advantage of all the mountains for hiking and snowboarding.  

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