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Native Americans are History Professor’s Passion

Christoph Strobel’s 2020 Book Traces History of Native Americans in New England

UMass Lowell History Professor Christoph Strobel specializes in Native American history Photo by Adrien Bisson
History Prof. Christoph Strobel is coming out with a comprehensive history of Native Americans in New England, 400 years after the Pilgrims landed.

11/22/2019
By Katharine Webster

Native Americans still live among us in New England. 

As Thanksgiving approaches, History Prof. Christoph Strobel wants people to know that Native Americans have endured, adapted and contributed to New England’s economy and culture since the Wampanoags and the Pilgrims shared the 1621 feast that became the basis of the modern holiday.

Next year, which marks the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ landing at Plymouth Rock, Strobel will come out with his sixth book, “Native Americans of New England.” Written for a general audience, it provides an overview of the region’s indigenous population, from precolonial times to the present.

Strobel teaches Native American History every semester, as well as World Civilization. He also offers special seminars on Native American wars, Native Americans of the Eastern woodlands, America and the world, and sub-Saharan Africa. The author or co-author of five other books, he has written about indigenous peoples and colonization, immigration, the importance of the Atlantic Ocean in world history, and historical perspectives on race and ethnicity.

Strobel, a native of Germany, recently sat down to talk about his upcoming book, how he accidentally became a historian and why he’s drawn to the history of Native Americans.

Q: How did you get interested in history, and specifically Native American history?

A: It goes back to my time at Hiram College in Ohio. I came to the U.S. as a German language assistant, to teach and take courses. At the time, I planned to become a foreign correspondent. But I took some history classes, and I got hooked. 

I also had a Seneca [Nation of Indians] friend at the college, and I spent a lot of time with her family in Salamanca, N.Y., on the Allegany Reservation. They would watch documentaries about the Nazis, and we talked about that as much as or more than Native American history. As a German born after the end of the Third Reich, I shared that historical awareness of trying to come to terms with the past.

Then, when I went to graduate school at UMass Amherst, I took a course guest-taught by Neal Salisbury, a Smith College professor of Native American history who inspired me to pursue further research. My first book, “The Testing Grounds of Modern Empire,” grew out of my dissertation, which compared the effects of colonization on indigenous people in the upper Ohio River Valley to those living in the Eastern Cape of South Africa.

Q: Why did you decide to write a comprehensive history of Native Americans in New England now?

A: For years, students have asked me, “Why is there no history of Native Americans in New England?” I also get invited to speak at libraries, historical societies and schools. There’s a lot of interest in the topic, and I wanted to answer some of the questions people keep asking me.

I’m trying to address the stereotypes and misconceptions that are out there. In New England, Native Americans have largely been written out of history. Most K-12 history books place them in the past, discussing them as if they disappeared shortly after the New English arrived in 1620, or as if the Northeast was a barely inhabited wilderness.

What really happened is that the Native Americans who survived the wars and new diseases the colonists brought with them adapted and blended in, often by intermarrying with other ethnic groups.

Q: You call this book an “interpretive history.” What does that mean?

A: I’m not trying to do highly specialized, original research. Instead, I’m trying to look at broad changes during six different historical periods. I’ve read and synthesized a vast amount of scholarship in multiple disciplines, including oral histories and native histories, anthropological and archaeological research, literary studies on native origin myths, in-depth research on particular groups and histories of colonization. 

The book is meant to tell the history of Native Americans in this region through a very long lens – and of course there will be a bibliography that invites people to read further. There is a lot I had to leave out to fit the story in one book, and I don’t have all the answers.

Q: Where do we find Native Americans in New England today, besides the small number of federally recognized tribes that have opened casinos or are trying to open casinos?

A: They’re hiding in plain sight, and if you open your eyes and your mind, you see them everywhere. 

Two things combined to obscure them from view. Many intermarried with African Americans and other groups, so that their children no longer appeared like the stereotypical image of a Native American: the Plains Indian. The federal government also pursued a brutal assimilation policy from the 1860s to the 1880s. Those two factors led many New England states, including Massachusetts, to terminate the legal status of their reservations.

But because of mainstream racism and indigenous desires to maintain their communities, the fantasy of “assimilation” never materialized. Native Americans adapted and persisted. Then, with a new wave of civil rights activism in the 1960s and ’70s, some came forward to assert their territorial and tribal rights. 

Ultimately, the federal government recognized several indigenous communities, including the Narragansett in Rhode Island and the Wampanoag in Massachusetts. There are more state-recognized tribes, like the Nipmucs, and some groups that aren’t recognized at all, even though they have always identified themselves as Native American. It’s a classic struggle about who gets to tell you what you are.

Q: The last section of your book deals with how Native Americans have pushed back in the last half-century, including trying to change our perspective on Columbus Day, which is now Indigenous Peoples Day in some places, and Thanksgiving.

A: Yes. On the day when most Americans celebrate Thanksgiving this year, hundreds of Native Americans will gather on Cole’s Hill in Plymouth, which overlooks Plymouth Rock and the harbor, for the 50th annual National Day of Mourning. They dedicate the day to mourning the killing of their ancestors and the theft of their lands. They also want to show that they are still here.