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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


June 29, 2002 - Issue 64


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Tribe Strives to Pass on Wampanoag Culture

by Sean Gonsalves Cape Code Online
credits:The Mashpee Wampanoag helped the Mashantucket Pequots build authentic wetus, or domed cedar huts, in an exhibit at a museum adjacent to Foxwoods casino in Ledyard, Conn. (Staff photo by Kevin Mingora)
MASHPEE, MA - When the Mashantucket Pequots opened the largest Native American museum in the country four years ago, they called on the Mashpee Wampanoag for help.

The museum next door to the tribe's Foxwoods Resort Casino in Ledyard, Conn., provides a trip through time, tracing the Pequot history from the last Ice Age to the present.

The centerpiece of a replica half-acre village is comprised of three wetus - domed cedar huts that northeastern Indians built for temporary family shelters as they roamed the wooded coast, fishing and hunting.

A pictorial display and video-monitor demonstrate how.

Mashpee Wampanoag members Russell Peters Jr., Annawon Weeden and Darius Coombs constructed them.

Linda Coombs of the Aquinnah Wampanaog tribe on Martha's Vineyard collected and prepared the bulrush reeds used to bind the bark and poles together, and weave together the wetu floor mats.

"What they lost was not their fault," Darius Coombs said about the Pequot. "So it's great to help them recover what they've lost."

He said he learned the traditional Wampanoag ways both orally and through the written record, crediting Wampanoag such as the late Nanepashemet and the late Helen Attaquin.

Both he and Linda Coombs, his sister-in-law, work at Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, where they interpret 17th-century Wampanoag culture for visitors.

Ironic reminder
The wetus in the Pequot museum stand as an ironic reminder that, although they have yet to be recognized as an authentic, historic tribe of Indians by the federal government, the Mashpee Wampanoag are a wellspring of knowledge when it comes to traditional Indian culture and ways of life.

In fact, the Mashpee Wampanoag's know-how and practice of traditional ways has been tapped by other area tribes, including those who have been federally recognized for years.

"We worked closely with a number of the Mashpee tribal members when constructing the exhibits in the museum, and we used some of their cultural consultants as well," said Pequot Tribal Council Chairman Kenneth Reels.

Building wetus at the Pequot museum isn't the only cultural exchange shared between the federally-recognized Pequots and the yet-to-be recognized Mashpee Wampanoag.

"We have been honored in the past to have Slow Turtle (John Peters) conduct ceremonies and blessings on our reservation," Reels said.

"We also encourage people to read books written by the Mashpee people to get an authentic representation of native life in the region. Many recognize the knowledge contained in the Mashpee community," he said.

"When people want to know about the history of Cape Cod, they contact the Mashpee (Wampanoag). People look to them for their knowledge of the rich history of the Mashpee region," he said.

Other cultural traditions link the Mashpee Wampanoag to their past. The tribe's Red Hawk singers keep alive native singing and drumming.

Reviving the language
And Jessie "Little Doe" Fermino, a linguist who trained at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, co-chairs the Wopanaak Language Reclamation Project and teaches courses on the language. Wopanaak, or Wampanoag, is one of 33 variations of the Algonquin language spoken by indigenous tribes living along the Eastern Seaboard of North America before the arrival of Europeans.

The project is run by a committee made up of Mashpee Wampanoag, Aquinnah Wampanoag on Martha's Vineyard, and members of the Assonet tribe in Freetown near New Bedford.

Fermino began teaching an introductory course in 1998 once a week. Now, with the help of a paid assistant and financial support from a local Quaker group, Fermino teaches three courses each week in Mashpee and on Martha's Vineyard for tribe members only, including a more advanced "immersion" course in which English is prohibited. Fermino is also compiling a Wampanoag dictionary.

And it's not just Wampanoag who are learning about their native tongue.

Melanie Rodrick, a 23-year-old member of the Assonet tribe, says learning the language of her ancestors is empowering.

"It seems like something that should be done. It makes me proud to be able to speak something that is our own."

Struggle for recognition
Beverly Wright, president of the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribal Council, credits the Mashpee Wampanaog for being instrumental in reviving the language that was nearly lost as a result of European colonization.

Wright, whose tribe was federally recognized in 1987, considers the Mashpees a sister-tribe that has maintained its identity from before 1620, when the Pilgrims first arrived on Cape Cod shores, until now.

"It's not: 'On this special day, we are going to be Mashpee Wampanoag.' They are Mashpee Wampanoag every day," she said. "I think most tribes are that way, but because there are so few Indian nations on the East Coast, the Mashpees practicing their culture and tradition every day seems to be special."

Reels agrees, which is why his Pequot tribe is supportive of the Mashpee Wampanoag petition for federal recognition.

"When it comes time for the Mashpee Nation's struggle for recognition of their rights as indigenous people and an opportunity to become self-sufficient, those same people who turned to them for knowledge in the past have the opportunity to be advocates for them in this arena also."

Mashpee Wampanoag: a history
  • 1685: Plymouth Court confirms the title of the "South Sea Indians" to land between what are now the Santuit and Childs rivers. Under the ruling the land cannot be purchased by the English without the consent of the Indians. A few years later, the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies merge to form Massachusetts.

  • 1763: The Massachusetts governor and Legislature agree to allow limited self-government to the Wampanoag in Mashpee. The new Mashpee government consists of three Indian and two English overseers, an English town clerk, an English treasurer, two wardens and one or more Indian constables. After the Revolutionary War the Legislature repeals that arrangement, ending Mashpee's mixed Indian-white government.

  • 1790: President George Washington signs the Trade and Non-Intercourse Act, which requires the approval of the federal government before Indian land can be sold or transferred.

  • 1833: After years of non-Indians coming onto Indian land to cut wood, the Wampanoag intercept non-Indian woodcutters and order them to unload wood from their wagon. When they refuse, the Rev. William Apes, a Methodist missionary of both Pequot and European descent, and six Wampanoag unload the wagon and send the men on their way empty-handed. The incident is known as the "Woodland Revolt."

  • 1834: The revolt comes to the attention of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, whose criticism about the state's treatment of the Mashpee Indians moved the state Legislature to pass the 1834 Mashpee District Act. The act gives more self-governance to the Wampanoag.

  • 1861: Dr. Milton Earle compiles the first detailed census of Indians living in Massachusetts at the request of the Legislature. The report - "The Indians of the Commonwealth" - examines the history of the state's existing Indian plantations and recommends citizenship and state aid to assimilate natives into the mainstream. There were 451 Wampanoag living in the area now known as Mashpee.

  • 1870: Mashpee and Gay Head on Martha's Vineyard become the last two Indian districts to be incorporated as towns of the commonwealth. In Mashpee there are no longer restrictions on the sale of land to non-Indians.

  • 1870-71: Mashpee's remaining commons are auctioned for $7,056.76, which is turned over to the town.

  • 1870-1960s: The Wampanoag represent most of the town's year-round population, and maintain political control of the town. The Wampanoag hunt and fish on the town's undeveloped land.

  • Late 1960s: Residential developments such as New Seabury begin to alter the town's demographics, and subsequently the power structure of Mashpee. The Wampanoag begin to lose their political control. The long-free movement of the Wampanoag through the woodlands for hunting and to the waters for fishing is impeded.

  • 1974: The tribe forms the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Council Inc. to articulate Indian concerns.

  • 1975: The council notifies the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs that the Mashpee Wampanoag intend to seek federal recognition.

  • 1976: The Mashpee Wampanoag file suit in U.S. District Court in Boston staking their claim to land in Mashpee and parts of Sandwich, Falmouth and Barnstable. The tribe says the land was illegally taken.
    The suit names New Seabury and 145 other non-Indian landowners who held title to 20 or more acres in town, and serves as a class action against more than 1,500 homeowners. The Wampanoag seek the return of 11,000 undeveloped acres, about 75 percent of the 14,894 acres that make up the town. The dispute clouds land titles in Mashpee. Settlement attempts, which went as far as the White House, fail.

  • September 1977: Federal Judge Walter J. Skinner allows an amendment exempting homeowners. But he declines a Wampanoag request to postpone the case until the federal government makes a decision on recognition. The lawyer representing the landowners, James St. Clair of Hale and Dorr in Boston, says the Wampanoag are not a tribe and have no standing to pursue the land suit.

  • Oct. 17, 1977: Judge Skinner convenes a trial on whether the Wampanoag are a tribe.

  • January 1978: Following a 40-day trial, the judge instructs the jury that they cannot find the Wampanoag are a tribe, unless the tribe falls within certain definitions at six points in history. The jury responds that the Mashpee Wampanoag were a tribe in 1834 and 1842 - but not 1790, 1869, 1870 and 1976. The dates correspond to key dates in the history of the tribe and its suit, such as the 1834 Mashpee District Act and the 1870 incorporation of Mashpee.

  • 1978: Judge Skinner dismisses the land suit, saying that the Wampanoag are not a tribe and have no standing to sue.

  • 1979: The First Circuit Court of Appeals upholds Skinner's decision. Later that year, the U.S. Supreme Court declines to hear the case.

  • 1982: A subsequent suit filed by Indians, including some Mashpee Wampanoag, seeks the return of 24,000 acres on the Cape and Martha's Vineyard. This suit also fails. But the suits and subsequent appeals cloud land titles in Mashpee for years, halting development in the town and creating bitterness between Indian and non-Indian residents of Mashpee.

  • 1990: The Mashpee Wampanoag tribe submits its recognition petition to the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.

  • 1991: The bureau responds to the petition with a letter asking the tribe to provide more genealogical information and more evidence of the tribe as a community.

  • 1996: The bureau receives the tribe's response and places the tribe on the agency's "ready for active consideration" list.

  • 2001: Under a court order, the bureau jumps another tribe, the Muwekma of California, ahead of the Wampanoag for consideration. The Wampanoag protest in the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia, which orders the bureau to decide whether the Mashpee Wampanoag should get federal recognition by Dec. 21, 2002.

  • June 10, 2002: The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit stays Judge Robertson's order until an appeal by the Justice Department can be heard. Attorneys representing the tribe move that the appeal be expedited. At least until the appeal is heard, the bureau does not have to decide whether the Mashpee Wampanoag should receive federal recognition.
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