Massoud Hayoun

Wampanoag divided over whether to join Plymouth Thanksgiving festivities

Participating Native Americans argue that they must tell their own story, but some elders shun involvement

MASHPEE, Mass. — A vast majority of Wampanoag, the first tribe to be devastated by British invaders’ violence and disease, refuse to come back to the table to relive history with those in nearby Plymouth, almost 400 years after the first Thanksgiving.

Americans are the “beneficiaries of injustice,” said Wampanoag tribal elder Tall Oak, 78, at a Saturday event on tribal land for Thanks Giving — not to be confused with Thanksgiving. He and many other Wampanoag believe the U.S. holiday whitewashes the decimation of his and other Native peoples in the centuries that followed that fabled meal shared by his ancestors and the Pilgrims in 1621. Still, it's not the Wampanoag’s responsibility to teach Americans that their forefathers were imperialists, he said.

Tall Oak, who decades ago stopped using his legal "slave name" Everett Weeden Jr., is one of many tribal elders and officials who disapprove of the Wampanoag participating in Plymouth Thanksgiving events. The tribe's council has in recent years ruled against formal participation in such festivities. But some members have a desire to tell their story themselves, and with the tribe suffering from 49 percent unemployment and mired in Cape Cod's seasonal tourist economy, some members find themselves joining Plymouth’s booming Thanksgiving and Pilgrim heritage industry, which generates some $350 million a year in tourism revenues and is growing at an average annual rate of 3 percent. 

Some Wampanoag see those who choose to participate as collaborators.

In a gymnasium at the Wampanoag’s freshly built tribal government complex in Mashpee, after finishing a buffet lunch of traditional foods like freshly hunted raccoon and oysters, Tall Oak saw one of his grandsons, an 18-year-old who hours earlier marched in Plymouth’s annual Thanksgiving parade.

“You came here after being a sellout and marching in the Pilgrim parade,” Tall Oak says loudly enough, with a chilling but sweet smile across his face. The tribal elder drips with buttons and stickers, some from President Barack Obama's 2012 re-election campaign, others commemorating moments in the American Indian Movement he helped launch in the 1970s. Tall Oak and fellow activists inaugurated in 1970 what Native Americans across the country now call the Day of Mourning — held on Thanksgiving to counter narratives that many say downplay the massacre and subjugation of the Wampanoag and other Native Americans.

Today the spirit of the Day of Mourning is observed across Native America. Jennifer Nez Denetdale, a University of New Mexico professor and noted authority on indigenous issues, said, “Holidays like Thanksgiving continue to perpetuate the myth of ‘The Indians welcomed us and fed us, so we have a justification for being here on stolen land.’”

“Indigenous nations and its people remain under assault by the U.S. government,” said Denetdale, a Navajo, adding that the oppression of indigenous peoples “has not ended, [but] so too has our resistance continued.”

Tall Oak hopes observing the spirit of the Day of Mourning will help his grandchildren transmit his indignation to his descendants. “I've been on his case,” he said of his grandson. “He knows where I'm coming from.”

Another of Tall Oak's grandsons and one of the tribe’s youth leaders, Brian Weeden, 21, said he would never participate in Plymouth’s parades and other Thanksgiving festivities against his grandfather’s and the tribe’s wishes.

“Individually, I think we should participate, but then again, I don’t feel comfortable supporting that if my tribe isn’t behind me. We take our guidance from the leaders,” he said.

Plymouth tourism officials are gearing up for 2020, the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ landed at Plymouth Rock, when flocks of tourists are expected to converge in “America’s hometown” to commemorate their arrival.

Paula Peters, a Wampanoag entrepreneur who this year launched an exhibit at the Plymouth Public Library about a group of Wampanoag who were kidnapped and sold into slavery years before the first Thanksgiving, will sit on the commemoration planning committee, Plymouth 400.

“They had been trying to get a Native person to sit on that board for a number of years,” she said. “There was resistance in the community — people not wanting to be part of something that’s primarily about the arrival of the Mayflower that had a profound impact on our people, our way of life for generations to come.”

Peters said she joined after much consideration but observed that this year is already a 400th anniversary for Wampanoag. Her exhibit, “Captured: 1614,” launched with Plymouth 400 at the Plymouth Public Library this year and expected to evolve until 2020, commemorates 20 Wampanoag men who were kidnapped by British invaders and taken to Britain. Squanto, a Wampanoag who American lore often holds miraculously spoke English with the Pilgrims when they arrived, learned his English while in captivity in Britain, the exhibit shows.

“In a village of 2,000, taking away 20 men had a huge impact. The exhibit is in part an impact statement,” she said. The insurmountable loss “was a harbinger of what was to come in many ways.”

Vernon “Silent Drum” Lopez, the tribe’s 92-year-old chief, narrated one of the exhibit videos, despite the tribal government’s official decision not to participate. “To have his voice recorded on that, for me, was one of the greatest sources of pride,” Peters said.

Part of her decision to collaborate on Plymouth 400 sprang from her childhood. When she was 6, her teacher in Philadelphia told the story of Thanksgiving, along the lines, Peters said, of “What a lovely feast was had and how these friendly Indians came. Then there was a horrible plague, and they were all dead.”

“I was 6, and I said no,” Peters said, “I said, ‘No, I’m still here. I’m a Wampanoag.’”

Some Wampanoag survived the plague and battles brought by the Pilgrims; the Mashpee Wampanoag count well over 2,000 tribe members today.

A small but deteremined group of the tribe today say its important that the Wampanoag include themselves in Plymouth’s historical commemorations to prove they are still around. 

Plimoth Plantation is a sprawling complex in Plymouth where families can walk around reconstructed Pilgrim and Wampanoag villages where everything, down to the nails used to build the Pilgrim houses, are as they would have been in the 17th century. While the Pilgrim re-enactors speak as though they were people who lived in the 17th century, the Wampanoag speak in the present tense to show that the tribe is still around.

“It’s key to helping guests understand the persistence of Wampanoag people after 1620,” said Richard Pickering, one of Plimoth Plantation’s directors and a three-decade veteran of the institution. “There's a perception that Native peoples disappeared, and that’s simply not the case.”

He said he was unaware of a stigma around Wampanoag participation in Plymouth historical activities and believes “it’s key that Native voices are shaping the story that’s being told.”

“It would be my hope that as many Native people as feel comfortable participating to make sure that they are represented and their message isn’t being projected for them by someone else.”

Plimoth Plantation models much of its re-creations on the year 1627. Peters, a former Plimoth Plantation employee, claimed that is because there was no fighting between Pilgrims and Wampanoag that year. “Nothing happened then. No one was killed or maimed or raped. It’s an easy year to portray if you just want happy tourists.”

Still, she said, “They do make efforts to delve deeper into the story.”

Pickering, in response, said that 1627 was chosen because of a census conducted that year that allows them to better know what the colony looked like at the time. Shortly after, colonizers began to travel up and down the East Coast.

A Wampanoag staff member at Plimoth Plantation, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they had not been authorized to speak to the press, acknowledged the stigma surrounding Wampanoag participation in such activities. “Some people in the community believe Plimoth Plantation doesn’t give a good representation of our people,” the staff member said, “That's why I’m here.”

When the staff member was asked whether Plimoth Plantation fairly represented Native people and history, the person said, after a short pause, “Yeah, you could say that.”

For the tribal government, proving to the outside world that the Wampanoag have survived and remain indignant about their history is key to thriving in the future, said their chairman, Cedric Cromwell.

Despite high levels of unemployment, the tribe, which received federal recognition only in 2007, recently built a 52-unit affordable housing unit for Wampanoag who had been forced to leave by the cost of Cape Cod real estate. The government complex, opened in February, offers clinical and dental care to tribe members. “We’re speaking our language again,” he added, after it died out for several generations and linguists launched a reclamation project roughly a decade ago.

Jessie “Little Doe” Baird oversees the Wampanoag language project. This year its application for a Wampanoag immersion charter school was not accepted by Massachusetts education officials, but it will make another bid next year, she said. The Wampanoag nation’s high school dropout rate is — like its unemployment figure — 49 percent.

“We feel we can educate our children better than people outside our community,” she said. With suicide being a leader killer among Native American children, Baird, a linguist, explained that the Wampanoag language has words to express feelings of depression that simply don't exist in the English language. “Nanawanatan,” for instance, means having the mind in a lower state than usual. There is no Wampanoag word for suicide, she said.

Cromwell is convinced that although the Wampanoag continue to observe the Day of Mourning that Tall Oak started with his comrades decades ago, “the mourning has turned into a brighter morning, m-o-r-n-i-n-g.”

Cromwell and his staff believe that Wampanoag, quickly building up the social services the tribe feels will make it a sovereign nation again, will serve as a beacon to other administrations across Native America, many of which are demanding greater autonomy in the governance and distribution of their lands from the federal government.

“This is where the devastation started, and this is where the healing will start,” said Robert Peters, Paula Peters' brother, outside a ceremony to give thanks at the Old Indian Meeting House, with drums inciting listeners inside. 

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