Unlearning and Relearning the Colonization of New England

ArticleA participant in our summer NEH workshop for teachers discusses the new ways she looks at maps, the erasure of Native people, and how she’ll be teaching this fall.

Nyssa Patten
August 20, 2021
748 words

This summer I was excited to be accepted into a 2021 NEH Landmarks of American History and Culture virtual teacher workshop hosted by the Leventhal Map & Education Center called Mapping a New World: Places of Conflict and Colonization in 17th-Century New England. I took the class for several reasons. First, I needed professional development points to renew my license. Graduate credits are always nice, but the main reason I was excited to take this workshop was because I wanted to have a fascinating, thought-provoking, fun, intellectually stimulating experience that also met my personal goals of continuing to make my classes more anti-racist. I was so excited to learn more about Indigenous presence … and less excited with the idea of working with maps. What can I learn from maps? I wondered. They are just physical representations of facts and data and spaces.

John Foster’s 1677 “A map of New-England: being the first that ever was here cut…” This map was used to illustrate a book detailing King Philip’s War⁠.

John Foster’s 1677 “A map of New-England: being the first that ever was here cut…” This map was used to illustrate a book detailing King Philip’s War⁠.

What a world opened up for me! It was eye-opening to delve into the complexities of maps: It isn’t always what is on the map that is important; often it’s what isn’t on the map. And more importantly, it’s important to pay attention to who created the map and how that affected what they chose to include and how they chose to label and name places. Evidence of white supremacy and erasure of native peoples was clear from the earliest European maps of Turtle Island.

I now find myself seeing with new eyes. The erasure of past—and present—native peoples is so painfully present to me now. My whole perspective has shifted and I am constantly examining my own stereotypes, presumptions, and complacency in this erasure. I have already gone back to some of the lessons I created through an anti-racist lens last year and thought this needs to be changed. When I see interpretive signs, I see what is left out and vow to ask questions and push and help others to un-erase.

My high school students are all immigrants. On the one hand, they have not grown up with the same myths that students who spent their whole lives here would have about the creation of this country. I have the opportunity to shape their view from scratch. On the other hand, they are not unfamiliar with the concepts of settler colonization and the myths that come with it, as many are from countries that had been colonized at some point.

Teachers investigated a “map of the day” as part of their daily work in the NEH workshop. One question teachers were asked to consider was “what does this map have to do with the idea of ‘new world’?” What do you think?

Teachers investigated a “map of the day” as part of their daily work in the NEH workshop. One question teachers were asked to consider was “what does this map have to do with the idea of ‘new world’?” What do you think?

I am excited about a place-based field trip at the beginning of the year starting right in our own backyard. After analyzing historical maps and place names of both Pigsgusset (known today as Watertown, MA) and Shawmut (known today as Boston), the students will look for clues about the history of colonization in both areas. They will look for what is represented, and what is left out. Eventually this will lead to an examination of current-day efforts to look at state and local seals, and culminate in a project asking the students to create their own seal to represent where they live.

I am incredibly grateful for the experience I had this summer. One of the most ongoing enjoyable parts about the class was the incredible number of paths and tangents I find myself going down. I set out to explore one topic and end up going off in a million different directions and finding out so much more that I set out to. This is just the beginning of a long adventure for me and my students.

Nyssa Patten is an ESL and sheltered history teacher at Watertown High School in Watertown, MA

To find out more about upcoming opportunities for K-12 educators, check out our professional development page.

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