[W]e the Wampanoags still walk the lands of Massachusetts. We may be fragmented, we may be confused. Many years have passed since we have been a people together. Our lands were invaded. We fought as hard to keep our land as you the whites did to take our land away from us. We were conquered, we became the American prisoners of war in many cases, and wards of the United States Government, until only recently.
Our spirit refuses to die. Yesterday we walked the woodland paths and sandy trails. Today we must walk the macadam highways and roads.
As a product of the Massachusetts public schools of the 1970s, I am shaped by the myths of the state’s history, perhaps most especially its founding. I learned about the Pilgrims escaping religious persecution arriving in Massachusetts and after a difficult winter being added by the Indians to learn how to grow crops in this new world. The first fall there was a Thanksgiving feast, and Squanto, who taught them how to plant corn, seems to have been the guest of honor. There are other Indians beside Squanto in pictures of this Thanksgiving feast, but because I didn’t learn their names they didn’t make much of an impression on my young mind.
After Squanto, Indians seem to disappear from the history I learn about Massachusetts—or I didn’t pay much attention to where they do appear. My textbooks jump quickly from Thanksgiving to the American Revolution. After the Revolution, there is the settingling of the West and I learn about the Plains Indians and the conflicts in those far away places. But the Indigenous people of Massachusetts are gone from the story. I didn’t choose this story, but still it directs my awareness in conscious and unconscious ways. With this story directing me, I don’t have to grapple with how land that didn’t belong to the Pilgrims became the state I live in or the homes my family and I have owned. I didn’t have to wonder what happened to the nameless Indians at the Thanksgiving feast.
But starting in 2014, I have begun to learn that despite attempts to exterminate, displace, and erase them, the Indigenous people of Massachusetts have remained, resisted, and preserved their culture and sovereignty. For example:
- The Wampanoag have continuously inhabited Aquinnah on Noepe (Martha’s Vineyard). They have reclaimed their language that for 150 years had been without native speakers and are now educating a generation of native speakers through the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project
- In 1833 the Mashpee Indians submitted an Indian Declaration of Independence to the Governor to resist encroachment on their land, writing that they would not “permit any white man to come upon our plantation to cut or carry our wood or hay . . . without our permission.” The declaration led to the Mashpee regaining the right to govern themselves rather than be supervised by white outsiders.
- The Nipmuc Nation have continuously inhabited land in the central and western part of the state including the Hassanamisco Reservation in Grafton that is their ancestral home.
- The Stockbridge-Munsee Band of the Mohican may now live in Wisconsin, but they still call the Berkshires home.
- For 50 years, United American Indians of New England have organized a National Day of Mourning in Plymouth as a spiritual and political gathering that highlights true rather than mythologized history.
The evidence is here for all to see: the Indigenous People of Massachusetts remain. So myths like Indians being “gone” are dangerous, but because they are out in the open can be dispelled.
More insidious and corrosive are the papered-over and buried stories. The stories that are taboo because their truth doesn’t fit the simplistic, untroubling narrative being offered.
The Pilgrims first encounter with the Wampanoag is such a story. (Historian David Silverman’s This Land is Their Land is the source for the history I am pulling examples from.)
The first encounter was not a direct encounter. In November 1620 the Mayflower landed at what is now known as Provincetown Harbor. The Wampanoag did not winter on the Cape and had left their summer villages to head inland. The Pilgrims entered these villages and one of the first things they did was dig up and take stockpiles of corn left for the next season’s planting.
We modern viewers looking back on the Pilgrim’s theft are rightly appalled by this. We want to disassociate ourselves from their actions. But I can’t make them totally Other. Because I am shaped by the founding myth with them at center, they are in my head. They could even be in my DNA. At least one of my six grandparents (adoption accounts for the extra set) descended, if not from this original band of Pilgrims, those who came soon after.
So I didn’t take the corn, but maybe I am alive today because one of my forebears ate it that first difficult winter. The corn connects me to the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags from whom it was stolen. Recognizing this connection I can then choose to be part of the repair and return of what was stolen. The historian Aurora Levins Morales in her book Medicine Stories offers this provocative way of thinking about our problematic ancestors and our relationship to them:
For people committed to liberation to claim descent from the perpetrators is a renewal of faith in human beings. If slavers, invaders, committers of genocide, inquisitors can beget abolitionists, resistance fighters, healers, community builders, then anyone can transform an inheritance of privilege or of victimization into something more fertile than either.
A first step for such repair doesn’t even require action. It requires us just to stop taking what doesn’t belong to us. Settlers have taken and continue to take Indigenous peoples’ corn, land, children, sacred places, culture, spirituality … it’s a long list.This is not history past but history present. Today, for one example, we white people feel and act like we are entitled to access Indigenous spiritual beliefs and practices as well as enter into their sacred places when and how we want to.
Once we stop actively taking, then we can move into acting for repair. But here, too, we don’t rush in but instead turn to Indigenous groups and leaders to ask them what assistance they need, what are their priority actions, how we can be allies and collaborators. The Massachusetts Indigenous Legislative Agendafor example, currently has campaigns to educate youth, rename Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day, remove appropriated racist images from mascots and the state seal, and protect Native American heritage.
I’ve saved the worst for last of these buried stories. The very first thing the Pilgrims did—even before they looted the corn—was desecrate the graves that they discovered at the Wampanoag’s summer villages. They did not give a reason for doing this in their writings. To grapple with this disgrace, we could try to imagine that it wasn’t their intent to dishonor and violate one of the most sacred acts of any people: tending to their dead. But intent doesn’t matter to the one who is impacted. Impact is what must be acknowledged not intent.
Mistreatment of the indigenous dead becomes a continuous thread through Massachusetts history and a weapon of control and attempted erasure:
- Metacomet and Weetamoo—leaders of King Philip’s War/Metacomet’s Rebellion— are beheaded and their heads left on spikes at the end of the deadly conflict. (There is so much more to this history that you can find in Lisa Brooks’ Our Beloved Kin.)
- In Massachusetts and throughout New England, indigenous peoples who died in the 19th century were eulogized as the last of their people, including even engraving this on to their tombstones, despite their having families and tribal groups defining membership with their own criteria (This is attempted erasure and denial of modernity are covered in detail in Jean O’Brien’s Firsting and Lastings.)
- Keeping the remains and burial goods of Indigenous peoples in museums despite the calls by native peoples to have their ancestors returned to them. But on a note of hope, in 2017 the Wampanoag were successful in having the remains of the sachem Ousamequin returned to them to be returned to their original burial site. Ousamequin is the sachem who made the first treaty with the Pilgrims and allowed them to begin settlement.
This is a horrifying history of trauma, but we can only move through it by acknowledging it. Secrets and hidden histories will assert themselves in explosive ways if not attended to.
There is one final part of the story that I am looking to as a guide for settlers and white people to move through rather than fight our history. This is the story of one of the graves the Pilgrims dug up. This person in it appears to have been a European, a man buried with a sailor’s canvas cassock and still showing blond hair. Perhaps he was a shipwrecked sailor or left behind from one of the exploring expeditions sent from Europe. He was buried with a child and grave goods to assist in rebirth into the afterlife. It seems that had a son with one of the Wampanoag women. It seems that he became enough part of the community to have a traditional burial.
For this European to have been accepted into the community, he had to orient to the customs, traditions, language, and systems of the Wampanoag. He’d have learned that his European ways were not the only ways to live by. He may not have given up his own beliefs or ways, but he learned to live by the Wampanoag’s. He must have made mistakes and so also made amends. He must have responded to prompts, requests, or demands about what contribution he could make to be part of the community.
This figure long hidden from history offers a glimmer of hope from that past for us white people that we can behave differently, that we can learn to live as equals in the multi-racial democracy that I see as the most inspiring vision—if yet to be realized and now very much under attack—of what the United States can be. He guides us to see our beliefs and systems as just one of many, to be curious about other ways of being in community. To change how we live in order to be part of a larger community. And as we do, to accept—to expect!—that we will make mistakes, but know that we can make amends. And once we’ve worked actively to make amends to be patient—we’ve 500+ years of making mistakes and so much worse—and while we wait to keep doing what we can do to be part of the work of repair rather than destruction.
The stories that have been kept secret are surfacing now. It’s time to listen to and learn from them. It is not too late to attempt repair because it is a myth—a lie—that the Indigenous people of Massachusetts disappeared. They are still here and raising their voices to be recognized, to receive justice. We can embrace their vision and act to bring it to life.
I’ll end as I started with the words of Wamsutta (Frank B.) James, written in 1970, that were a catalyst for the National Day of Mourning:
We’re being heard. We are now being listened to. The important point is that along with these necessities of everyday living, we still have the spirit, we still have the unique culture. We still have the will. And most important of all, the determination to remain as Indians. We are determined and our presence here this evening is living testimony that this is only the beginning of the American Indian, particularly the Wampanoag, to regain the position in this country that is rightfully ours.”
This is a revision of a piece I orignally wrote for Indigenous People’s Day 2021.