The interactions between Native Americans and Europeans are more complicated than what some history books suggest.
Historic Newton and the Natick Historical Society explore the complexities of Native American-European relations in their virtual exhibit “I Heard That Word…”
“I think that the more that we are able to tell these complexities, the more people will understand that history is a dynamic topic,” said Clara Silverstein, community engagement manager at Historic Newton. “There’s always more to learn and always more to reinterpret.”
The exhibit narrates the story of Indigenous people in the town of Nonantum—which is now in modern-day Newton—many of whom were converted to Christianity by English missionary John Eliot.
“I Heard That Word…” is a virtual reality exhibit that walks viewers through the experiences of Nipmuc leader Waban and his followers, who Eliot converted to Christianity and removed from their home to Natick. Natick was the first “praying town” in New England, where the English imposed Christian practices and English customs on Indigenous people, according to the exhibit.
Historic Newton and the Natick Historical Society compiled information from many different primary sources in the creation of this exhibit, although Silverstein acknowledged that the Native perspective from the time period was less documented than that of the Europeans.
“What we have for the Native perspective is mostly the Bible translation [to the Algonquian language], and some of the documents that the English speakers created to show what the Native people are saying,” Silverstein said. “Little hard to trust that exactly. … We also reached out to Native groups to get their perspective—groups that are still in Massachusetts.”
The press release from the two historical societies also stated that the exhibit was timely, as both Newton and Natick are in the process of reevaluating their municipal seals, which depict Eliot preaching to Native Americans.
Community engagement with events about local Indigenous history has been high. Since Historic Newton posted the exhibit link to its website, about 500 people have opened the landing page, according to Silverstein.
She also pointed to a Zoom event about Native American interactions with Eliot that Newton Free Library hosted in January 2021 that approximately 330 people attended.
“There’s been interest in learning more about native history and just reconsidering the perspective of native people in general,” Silverstein said.
There will be another Historic Newton–endorsed event examining local native history, this time about the myths of Thanksgiving, on Tuesday.
The “I Heard That Word…” exhibit also links a variety of resources for further learning, including books, films, and information on contemporary native communities in New England.
The exhibit emphasizes the factors that were at play in the social dynamics of the time—including how not all the Nipmuc people were willing to adopt English customs, while some may have converted out of a desire to keep their homeland.
“There were people on both sides making decisions, and you’re trying to act in your community’s best interest,” Silverstein said. “And [this exhibit] represents just one story of many.”