Dunlap — my name — is a Scottish word which translates into “fortress at the bend of the river.” I didn’t know this until a genealogist contacted me last year from Scotland.

During the tenure of the Maine State-Wabanaki Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where we bore witness to testimony of the destruction of native families, communities and culture through unjust child welfare policies, it struck me hard that many of us have had our own culture erased from our souls.

We’ve learned, oddly, to celebrate those thefts.

Throughout much of our history, a lot has been offered to us about what it means to be an American. As children, we learned about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, among other American heroes, because theirs were lives to be emulated: be honest, brave, decisive and, above all, moral. We cut headdresses and tall black hats with buckles out of construction paper and re-enacted the first Thanksgiving.

In high school, we learned about the glory of Manifest Destiny and the opening of the western frontier, and the heroic pioneers who grew America into a world power. And we celebrated Columbus Day — the “discovery” of America.

Columbus Day is the masterful archetype of American political spin. As a navigator, Columbus was a failure, believing when he reached the New World (which, historically, he was nowhere near the first to do) that he was actually in the western Pacific and the East Indies. It’s why he called the natives he met Indians, and the name stuck.


Columbus really succeeded at nothing in the New World, but he did inspire the possibilities of conquest and pillaging in the plans of many others. While this eventually shaped the tragedy of Manifest Destiny, it was by no means new.

Conquest and assimilation were the hallmarks of the Age of Empire. The Mongol hordes, the Moors and the Alexandrian empire were typical examples. The Romans mastered the art of conquest and assimilation in France, Germany, Spain, much of the Mediterranean basin and Britain. In Britain, Gnaeus Julius Agricola, the Roman governor of Britain, was celebrated for his destruction of the native forces that resisted Rome, including the Ordovices in north Wales, the Icene in north-central England and the southern Caledonians, who we now know as Scots. My people.

We don’t think much about who we were before our forebears were conquered and became something else. The southern Caledonians became Roman, and then British, and then many came west to America, and became Americans, and we carried what we learned with us, either consciously or not. The peoples that were here and thriving were in our way and had what we wanted, and so we moved on them.

Over time, the tragedy of the American genocide against native nations through bounties, intentional spread of disease, direct military action, ghettoization and the forcible removal of children to assimilate into Western culture has played out inexorably and virtually uninterrupted. Strangely, through Columbus Day, we celebrate that, along with celebrating our own losses of our own native cultures through the continuation of the same genocidal practices.

But the recognition here in Maine that such practices cannot stand offers hope to not only our native neighbors and their right to live their cultural beliefs and to hand those down to their children, but to all of us. Of course, we can’t change history, but we can accept our responsibility to stop repeating it. If we can celebrate a navigator who turned not knowing where he was into a New World, we can mark that same moment to declare that the Indian wars are over and that we no longer need to destroy cultures in order to succeed as Americans.

That would be a uniquely American idea.

Secretary of State Matt Dunlap of Old Town was a member of the Maine State-Wabanaki Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

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