Massasoit statue overlooking the site of Plymouth Rock. Greg Kullberg / http://gregsdigital.com

This Thanksgiving, Stand with Mashpee

Protect the Sovereignty of the Native Americans Who Welcomed the Pilgrims

hen the English immigrants known as the Pilgrims arrived in North America in 1620, the local Wampanoag people, whose name translates as “People of the First Light,” treated them with dignity and respect.

Without the Wampanoag’s help, the Pilgrims may not have survived that first winter. The following year, after the English brought in their harvest, the Wampanoag participated in the celebratory feast later mythologized as the “First Thanksgiving.” The myth has endured, despite the fact that the English soon repaid the Wampanoag’s hospitality by massacring their villages, assassinating their leaders, enslaving their children and offering cash rewards for their scalps.

Given the staggering numbers of Native Americans exiled by our government — Andrew Jackson alone displaced over 46,000 people* — the fact that the Wampanoag persist on the same soil after 12,000 years borders on miraculous. Talk about American exceptionalism!

But the Wampanoag have also endured. The Mashpee and Gay Head/Aquinnah tribes have a combined total of approximately 4,000 enrolled citizens. Many of them still inhabit a small portion of their ancestral homeland in Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts.

Given the staggering numbers of Native Americans exiled by our government — Andrew Jackson alone displaced over 46,000 people* — the fact that the Wampanoag persist on the same soil after 12,000 years borders on miraculous. Talk about American exceptionalism!

This adds another layer of ugly irony to the Trump administration’s recent actions toward the Mashpee Nation. On September 7th, 2018, the U.S Department of the Interior reversed a 2015 decision that set aside 321 acres in federal trust for the Mashpee Wampanoag Nation. The 28-page ruling, issued by Trump appointee Tara Sweeney, Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, claims that the Mashpee Wampanoag do not qualify as “Indian” under the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) because the tribe was not under federal jurisdiction at the time.

“We shouldn’t have to justify our membership and our existence to folks from overseas. We are the people of this land and we’ve always been here.” -Hartman Deetz

“We shouldn’t have to justify our membership and our existence to folks from overseas,” Mashpee activist and educator Hartman Deetz told an audience of around 70 people at the annual Beaver Moon Gathering November 1oth in Turners Falls, Massachusetts. “We are the people of this land and we’ve always been here.”

Deetz compared the government’s action to showing up in Ireland and asking “so and so McGuinness to prove he’s Irish.”

The most recent assault on Wampanoag sovereignty was orchestrated by opponents of a planned casino resort on a 170 acre parcel of land adjacent to Taunton, Mass.

Although a majority of Taunton residents approved the project by ballot initiative, a small group of homeowners mounted a legal challenge to the government’s decision to place the land in trust. The lawsuit was financed by developer Neil Bluhm, who hopes to build a casino in nearby Brockton.

“It’s the tools of genocide, colonialism,” Deetz said. “It’s the tools of these machines that try to take the truth and it upside down its heads so that they are able justify what they want as the end results. They want to ignore the actual facts.”

Trump is hardly the first to employ alternative facts, it’s just that many of us non-Native Americans are unused to being on the receiving end

In the age of Trump, what Deetz describes sounds all too familiar. But Trump is hardly the first to employ alternative facts, it’s just that many of us non-Native Americans are unused to being on the receiving end. Our textbooks are filled with alternative facts, especially when it comes to the history of marginalized peoples. The Thanksgiving holiday itself is based on alternative facts.

Although the Wampanoag did participate in the historic feast, their version of event differs from what most of us learned in school. You can read the full story at Indian Country Today but the gist is that 90 Wampanoag Braves went to investigate gunfire and commotion coming from the English camp. They found what appeared to be a harvest festival in full swing, but set up camp nearby to keep an eye on things. The English, who only numbered about two dozen, did not have enough food for the unanticipated guests, so the Wampanoag sent out their own hunting parties, which returned with deer, fish and fowl to contribute to the feast. The current narrative was popularized during the Civil War era, when the nation had a strong need for a unifying myth.

This Thanksgiving, Deetz and other tribal leaders urge citizens to take action by calling or writing their representatives in congress and members of the House Natural Resources Committee and asking them to support house bill H.R. 5244, The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Reservation Reaffirmation Act. Phone numbers and letter templates are available to download on the tribes website: https://mashpeewampanoagtribe-nsn.gov/standwithmashpee

On Thanksgiving Day, Native Americans and their allies will gather on the hill overlooking Plymouth Harbor to to commemorate a National Day of Mourning. Every year since 1870, they have come together on this spot to mourn their ancestors and celebrate strength in unity. This year’s event will be dedicated to the migrants who face persecution by ICE and other federal agencies, including family separation. For more information visit http://www.uaine.org

*“Indian removal: 1814–1846.” https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4p2959.html

Writer. Traveler. Yogini. Activist. Other. http://www.annalairdbarto.com

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