Canku Ota

(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


June 16, 2001 - Issue 38



Revising History in Plymouth


 by David D. Haskell UPI News

Indian history is gaining space with Pilgrim myth in the Massachusetts community that calls itself America's "hometown."

Plymouth, a seaside town 50 miles south of Boston, prides itself as the place where English pilgrims arrived aboard the vessel Mayflower in 1620, established a colony, befriended the indigenous natives and had them over for a feast in 1621.

As taught to generations of schoolchildren, that feast became the basis for the holiday almost universally celebrated throughout the United States in November as Thanksgiving.

The problem, according to Native American historians, is that it's just part of a quilt of many myths woven by the descendants of those early English voyagers who settled in what is now southern New England and drove some tribes to near extinction.

Now, some 381 years later, Plymouth continues to be a focal point of disagreement and animosity pitting the white European-based establishment against the descendants of the local natives.

It is an age-old story of invasion and conquest, where the victors get to write the history and the viewpoint of the vanquished is minimized.

For one thing, despite what is widely taught, those early colonists fleeing religious persecution in their native England did not initially refer to themselves as Pilgrims -- 44 called themselves "Saints" and 66 were referred to by the "Saints" as "strangers." The label "Pilgrims" came into being after the voyagers joined in signing the Mayflower Compact.

The natives who had occupied the land for thousands of years didn't call themselves Indians, or even Native Americans. They were, simply, the People.

The People in this case was the Wampanoag, a tribal name translated as the "People of the Dawn" or the "People of the First Light" because they lived in the east and were the first to see the sun rise each day. The Wampanoag are also sometimes now simply known as "The Indians who met the Pilgrims."

The story of the Plymouth Colony is told at the living history museum, Plimoth Plantation, which uses the original spelling of the word Plymouth. The museum is a recreation of the colonial village as it existed in 1627, and character actors portray various English settlers, and talk with visitors about events leading up to 1627, but know nothing of events beyond that year.

For a half century, the museum told the story of the colony from the viewpoint of the Pilgrims. Traditional Thanksgiving images showed large numbers of Pilgrims and few natives, failing to reflect realities of native history and ignoring the persecution of the Wampanoag.

In truth, according to the only written record of the event, a letter by Mayflower passenger Edward Winslow, 90 natives lead by the sachem, or leader, Massasoit, participated in the harvest feast with some 45 Pilgrims who had survived their first brutal winter.

It took the museum years to revise the myth that became an icon of American holidays, and Indian leaders generally were pleased with the attempt at greater accuracy.

Linda Coombs, a Wampanoag and native expert at the museum, called the attempt "gratifying" but added that while some people are recognizing that what they've been taught is not true, there are some who "still don't want to hear it."

The Wampanoag of today are politically motivated and keenly interested in cultural preservation. Their pressure over recent decades finally motivated the museum in recent years to establish a special exhibit that includes the viewpoint of the Native Peoples. The exhibit, called "Irreconcilable Differences 1620-1692," traces the history of Plymouth Colony from the landing of the Mayflower and covers the major points of interaction between the colonists and the Native Peoples.

Many white historians had considered the Wampanoag to be extinct, the demise the result of the bloodiest war in New England, known as King Philip's War, from 1675 to 1676. Although their culture was nearly lost, the Wampanoag tribe was revitalized and reasserted itself in the 1960s and 1970s. Members of the tribe as it is now constituted insist their genealogies prove its culture "did not disappear." In 1987, it became the first federally recognized tribe in Massachusetts.

Anthony E. Pollard, an activist historian at Plimoth Plantation, and known by his Wampanoag name as Nanepashemet, wrote before he died in 1995 that the Wampanoag have proved by being a dynamic culture they will continue to exist despite continued challenges to their traditions and values.

The town of Plymouth draws thousands of tourists each year primarily because of its historical ties to the Pilgrims and the 1621 feast that became the core of the myth so ingrained in America's sense of national
identity. The Wampanoag regret many non-native people still believe the myth.

It was Plymouth's annual Thanksgiving Day celebration in 1970 that brought the cultural conflict into the national spotlight. Local planners sought out a Wampanoag to deliver a speech at a state dinner celebrating the 350th anniversary of the Pilgrim landing. They asked Wamsutta Frank James to speak
in praise of the white man for bringing civilization to "us poor heathens," according to Moonanum James, a co-leader of United American Indians of New England.

When event organizers read in advance what Wamsutta intended to say, they denied him the right to speak because his remarks did not fit the state's need to keep the Pilgrim mythology alive. Wamsutta refused to give a speech written for him by the state "that would keep the lies alive," said Moonanum

Instead, native people from throughout the Americas came to Plymouth to mourn ancestors sold into slavery, burned alive, massacred, cheated and mistreated since the arrival of the Pilgrims. The natives call the gathering the National Day of Mourning.

At the 30th National Day of Mourning on Nov. 25, 1999, Moonanum James complained native peoples were not welcomed in Plymouth because "those who do not want the truth to come out have tried many times and in many ways to silence us."

"They wanted to keep the Pilgrim mythology alive," Moonanum James said. "They needed to keep the truth buried."

He said what was in Wamsutta's speech that so upset officials was that the reason the nation's focus was put on the Pilgrims and not the earlier English-speaking colony in Jamestown, Va., is that in Jamestown "the circumstances were way too ugly to hold up as an effective national myth," such as cannibalism on the part of the white settlers.

Wamsutta also planned to say the Pilgrims did not call themselves pilgrims, did not come here seeking religious freedom but, rather, as part of a commercial venture and they did not actually land at what is now called Plymouth Rock, derided by natives as a monument to racism and oppression.

The only truth in the whole mythology, according to Wamsutta, is that "these pitiful European strangers would not have survived their first several years in 'New England' were it not for the aid of Wampanoag people."

The annual National Day of Mourning turned ugly on Nov. 28, 1997, when police confronted a group of from 100 to 200 Indians trying to march through the historic district of Plymouth. Witnesses said police beat and gassed the group, arresting about 25 on charges of disorderly conduct and unlawful assembly.

Earlier in the day a group of historical re-enactors dressed as Pilgrims had marched through the same area to commemorate the first Thanksgiving without incident. Indian demonstrators argued without success that they had the same right to freedom of speech.

United American Indians of New England said the most sickening part of what happened is that the police attack was executed simply to protect the sacred image of the Pilgrims and the sacred image of Plymouth as a tourist shrine. The police assault was planned and carried out simply to protect the
tourist industry in Plymouth, the native activists said.

The confrontation did have positive results. Two years later, under an agreement with town officials, two plaques articulating the Indian view of Thanksgiving were dedicated by the Indians, one on Cole's Hill near the statue of Massasoit, and one in the town's Post Office square.

The Cole's Hill plaque reads in part: "Many Native Americans do not celebrate the arrival of the Pilgrims and other European settlers. To them, Thanksgiving Day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of their people, the theft of their lands, and the relentless assault on their culture."

The Post Office square plaque tells the story of Metacomet, the son of Massasoit, who became known to the English as King Philip. Massasoit was the first and staunchest ally of the settlers for 40 years until his death in 1661. When Philip became the tribal leader in 1662, he initially honored treaties made by his father with Plymouth Colony. Philip, however, later called upon native people to unite to defend their homelands, resulting in King Philip's war. The bloody conflict lasted from 1675 to 1676 when Philip was murdered and his head impaled on a pike and displayed near the town square.

With the end of the war, resistance to further colonial settlements in southern New England basically ended and the native tribes came under complete control of the colonists.

The struggle continues today, however, as Moonanum James said, to free the land "from the lies of the history books, the profiteers, and the mythmakers."

Maps by Travel




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