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“Pakachoag: Where the River Bends” Informs on the Significance of Indigenous Presence and History

Sarah Carter ’24

News Editor

This past Saturday, the McFarland Center at the College of the Holy Cross welcomed students and faculty to a live first viewing of “Pakachoag: Where the River Bends,” a film illuminating on the significance of commemorating the history of indigenous peoples native to the Worcester area and College Hill. Sarah Luria, professor of English at the College, commenced the webinar event with an enlightening introduction to the project, which she edited and coordinated. The film, she remarked, is the culmination of more than one year’s worth of interviewing, data collection, and film production – a project that she believes will engender understanding and consciousness among the Holy Cross community for the presence of indigenous peoples and their culture in our own residencies. She briefly alluded to the significance of the Holy Cross campus as a former home to indigenous peoples, and advised viewers to consider that “ . . . indigenous peoples did and now live in every part of the United States,” before beginning the film.

Throughout the film, Thomas Doughton, Senior Lecturer at the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies, and Colin Novick, Executive Director of the Greater Worcester Land Trust, visit a number of natural landscapes and locations within the greater Worcester area that formerly constituted the Pakachoag village of the indigenous Nipmuc people. First on their tour is the Blackstone River (previously known as Kattatuck, or “The Great River” by the native population), a natural waterway that once served as a transportation route for Nipmuc people venturing downstream into coastal regions, but later was incorporated into the industrial undertakings of English settlers who used the waterway to expel factory waste products, thus precluding the Nipmucs from using the river for future travel. The two film guides also introduce viewers to Cookson Park, a once burgeoning landscape of oak overstory occupied by the Nipmuc tribes. Both Doughton and Novick note that English settlers later colonized the land and cleared its vegetation for material use, displacing the Nipmucs from their native territory and transforming the space into unsustainable grazing fields ill-suited for hunting. Both examples showcase the effects of European arrival on the threatened livelihoods of Nipmuc natives, and prompt viewers to consider how Nipmucs experienced the loss of their collective culture and identity in response to English settlement.

In addition to this, the film is largely devoted to unveiling the hidden history of Pakachoag village and dislodging romanticized notions of indigenous peoples. One common narrative that the filmmakers denounce involves the belief that many indigenous people welcomed the arrival of Europeans to their land. While tribes such as the Nipmucs were initially nonviolent in their opposition to English settlement, they were nonetheless still opposed to it. Europeans believed it was their duty to disseminate religion and christianize the native Nipmucs (and other tribes), and regarded indigenous peoples of New England as lost Israeli tribes whose conversion would lead to the rebirth of Jesus. The resistance of indidgenous tribes to European indoctrination would eventually result in King Philip’s War (1674-76), an armed conflict that precipitated thousands of indigenous deaths and ended in a colonial victory. The indigenous inhabitants who lived through the war were either sold or enslaved, or trafficked into smaller settlements under English command and control. 

Image courtesy of the McFarland Center. Graphic design by Hui Li ’21.

Doughton and Novick also elucidate the romanticized history of Nipmuc natives. In the film, they discuss examples of how history glorifies elements of the lives of indigenous peoples, such as nature, and how this contributes to a mistelling of history altogether. For instance, Mount Wachusett in Worcester County, previously known as Pakachoag Hill, contains evidence of romanticism in its name. While the native village of Pakachoag was located near a summit, the denomination of that summit as a mountain is a romanticism of the landscape itself that “ . . . elevates the state of the hill to a mountain”. Furthermore, the College’s former newspaper, The Tomahawk, is a second form of romanticized indigenous history. The paper, which preceded both The Crusader and The Spire, only made references to native culture in its name, therefore failing to inform on the history and presence of indigenous peoples on the Holy Cross campus. Upon changing its name to The Crusader, the editorial board for the paper actually released a statement saying that “Holy Cross and Indian traditions do not seem to mix well . . . and the attempt to create an Indian atmosphere on the hill is a hopeless task”. By citing examples of romanticism such as these, the film conveys the significance of truly understanding the reality of indigenous peoples and their land.

The end of the film features a closing address from Cheryll Toney Holley, Leader of the Hassanamisco Band of Nipmuc Indians in the Nipmuc Nation, who also spoke at the very beginning of the film. In her statement, she communicates to viewers that the Nipmuc people, in response to centuries of land loss and subjugation by European powers, are presently wrestling with the loss of their communal identity and connection to the land. She beseeches the audience to understand how English expansionism has threatened the livelihood of several native peoples for hundreds of years, and underscores the necessity of appropriately depicting the history of indigenous peoples in our societies today.

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