This Thanksgiving, Don’t Forget the History of Native Bounties in the US
After the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving is the most heavily mythologized US-specific holiday, and in some ways its myth is even more insidious. Whereas the Fourth of July is an origin story for the nation, Thanksgiving is its supposed prehistory, a deceptively anodyne depiction of relations between European settlers and the land’s Native inhabitants. The story of friendly New England pilgrims and Wampanoag people breaking bread together is instilled in every schoolchild in the country. Recent years have seen a pushback against this picture-book version of the past and the sanitized narrative it represents, as Native people of various nations fight for recognition and reparation of both their historical persecution and contemporary government neglect.
This is the context in which the Upstander Project, a decolonization-minded media education initiative, has released its new documentary short Bounty. Produced in collaboration with members of the Penobscot Nation, it tells the little-known history of government bounties for Indigenous people across the Northeast, both before and after the founding of the United States. These murders were commissioned starting only a generation after the fabled “First Thanksgiving.” Researchers for the film uncovered records of government payments for 375 human scalps that amounted to the modern equivalent of millions of dollars, awarded over the course of many years. Additionally, bounty hunters were sometimes rewarded with the land of the people they killed, resulting in thousands of acres throughout the region being stolen. And this is only what is known from what currently survives in various archives.
The film features several Penobscot relaying this history to their children in Boston’s Old State House, in the very room where in 1755 the settler government proclaimed war on their ancestors. The documentary is made both as a provocative “We are still here” statement and as an introduction to a greater dialogue around these issues. The film’s website is built with a novel structure, introducing elements piece by piece as the reader scrolls, encouraging you to ingest each piece of information in turn before proceeding to the next section. It is filled with supplementary materials — videos that introduce and contextualize the short, clips that tell more about the participants, a teacher’s guide, a timeline of events, an appendix of documented land grants in the Northeast, and more. Bounty is a potent piece of Thanksgiving counter-programming. On this holiday, people are encouraged to reflect; don’t leave this history out of that reflection.
Bounty can be viewed, along with its accompanying videos and other materials, on its website.