Beyond Vacationland: the Native American Cape Cod Story

Driving just a few hours south and east of Boston, the Project 562 war pony reached the storied shores of Cape Cod, the region of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, iconic in the American scene as an immensely beautiful, exclusive oceanic outpost of the rich and powerful. But the Cape, as it is known, is another place entirely when viewed through the lens of the history and reality of Turtle Island (the Native way of referencing North America). This stunning seaside expanse of elegant private estates comprises the ancestral lands of the Wampanoag people and this tribe is considered a “first contact nation” with whites in North America.  

Tribal tribal historian Ramona Peters (Mashpee Wampanoag) explains that Wampanoag culture and tradition intrinsically offer welcome and care for others.  The Puritans in the 1600s would have been greeted by her forbearers in this way, however the rampant white occupation of Native lands in that era prompted King Phillip’s violent resistance. Deadly reprisal and colonial suppression ensued. Tribal conflicts and a series of betrayals continued as the outsiders took more land by force, and eventually overran the region prompting a centuries-long saga of state and federal government misdeeds against the Wampanoag began.

In the modern era, the tribe has waged costly, protracted legal battles in attempts to reclaim some of their ever-diminishing lands. This fight for their home has gone hand-in-hand with their struggle to assert their rightful status as a sovereign tribal nation.The Wampanoag finally won this long-thwarted battle for federal recognition in 2007: a great victory, but certainly not sufficient reparation for generations of damage that had already been done. 

With the forced loss of her and other peoples’ homelands, cultures, languages, and sense of self, Ramona and Mashpee Wampanoag share a deep and, unsettling sense of accountability for being the first to welcome European settlement and for the devastating aftermath in New England and elsewhere in Turtle Island.  As a young scholar, Ramona chose to travel worldwide and meet with scores of peoples who, such as the Wampanoag, had been the first to encounter whites.  In interviewing members of these communities, she discovered ubiquitous guilt and regret among them for “opening the floodgates” that have swept away or subordinated so much indigenous culture globally.  

As a Native from the Northwest, I was struck by the numerous complex forces and challenges that have besieged Ramona’s people and other northeastern tribes for centuries.  I find most moving their unique burden of conscience, their sense of complicity in the first phase of “manifest destiny”.  Ramona, though, understands profoundly the cycles of prophecy and history. This insight allows her a way to reconcile the foretold arrival of Europeans with subsequent conquest and destruction of Native American lands and peoples. As terrible as the events that would follow white colonialism have been, Mashpee Wampanoag and other peoples have, despite it all, displayed tremendous levels of unity and purpose, which has brought them through to the present - still alive with an indestructible connection to their true selves. Struggle and loss aside, Ramona has found a way to intensify and to take pride in the beautifully humane ways that have always distinguished her people: 

“When I was a kid, I used to feel that we were the ones who made the big mistake and caused this big problem. No. We should never be ashamed of being welcoming. We should never be ashamed of being friendly. That’s how we were created. That’s a big part of our culture. Even today.”  

The present day scene in Mashpee finds somewhat salty relations between the Wampanoag and the descendants of settlers.  This is in part because of ineradicable patterns of the landscape and steadfast tradition.  When I sought a place for morning prayers, tribal member  Paula Peters ushered me to an ancient path she maintains that leads to a beautiful marsh area where her family has long had ceremony and refuge.  She let me know, though, that her white neighbors might regard my presence with irritation.  There are other such ancient footpaths all over Cape Cod established by the tribe before anyone can remember, and these regularly used trails and other spaces blur the boundaries between Indian presence and private property.  We felt the tension firsthand when we tried to enjoy a traditional Indian beach spot and neighbors complained to the police who made us leave.  Such antagonism is not uncommon where Indian people and traditions visibly endure amidst whites. Despite the friction, Mashpee Wampanoag maintain a sense of humor and calm while practicing their ways and asserting their prerogatives.  Some core cultural practices, however, have been severely curtailed. Qahogging (or clamming), for example, has become logistically difficult if not impossible at times due to incessant monitoring and disruption. Meanwhile, the struggle to preserve tribal language has been stymied by the lack of support from the state’s education authorities, despite substantial private support, including from the MacArthur Foundation, and great success with students.  

Repeatedly in our journey, we have seen that land and associated rights are essential to the exercise of tribal sovereignty and the ability to preserve and promote culture.  This connection between Native land and identity was poignantly revealed when we met Loren Spears of the Narragansett people in Rhode Island.  Loren is the passionate director of a private Indian museum she and her mother have sustained for years.  She explains that in 1880, the Rhode Island legislature, despite the plenary authority of Congress over Indian affairs, stripped the Narragansett of tribal status, forced the sale of tribal lands, and otherwise dissolved their rights as an independent people.  For about 100 years, the tribe was illegally erased and disempowered under state law. The people nevertheless remained intact and continued to exist with a semblance of their original Indian governance structure.  

In the 1970s the Narragansett initiated litigation to regain a land base, and there were many favorable federal court rulings repudiating the state’s schemes.  But federal action in the Narragansett Land Claim of 1978 officially stripped the tribe and all others in Rhode Island of all aboriginal title in lands the state in exchange for just $3.5 million and a transfer of a relatively small amount of private acreage.  This bureaucratic decree extinguished forever the Narragansetts’ and all Native Americans’ relationship with their land in Rhode Island.  Ironically, the tribe would be granted federal recognition in 1983, but the absence of significant land holdings essentially nullifies any meaningful exercise of sovereignty, including the denial of the gaming rights and that economic potential.  

Loren shares the devastating psychological impact of being a people without any recognized connection with their own land:

“Our history is very difficult. When everyone’s saying you don’t exist, how are you supposed to feel? As young people, some of us would shrink more into ourselves, others would become aggressive. Either way, we were harmed.” 

“Location, location, location,” goes the crass adage about commercial and other advantage in the United States.  The Wampanoag and Narragansett people prior to the Puritans’ arrival had existed in perhaps the most extraordinarily beautiful and abundant landscape in New England.  Because of its natural appeal, the most avid colonial settlement would occur in these tribes’ ancestral lands.  Where there is displacement from a homeland, there has come to be irrepressible yearning and struggle on all fronts for cultural wholeness and identity, as well as for communication and action about such crises.  We are privileged to have met these peoples and to be able to reinforce awareness of the vital and just connection between Native place and Native people as we survive, and thrive.  We will work steadfastedly to reinforce an understanding of the vital and just connection between Native place and Native people as we survive, and thrive.  

P.S.- Here’s a few contact sheets from our Mashpee beach day with Maya, Miles baby Meekonuk and Josiah. Sending love and goodness to our Mashpee friends, you’re the best.