The Mashpee Wampanoag – Our Story:
Archeological evidence has determined the presence of our ancestors in Massachusetts for more than 12,000 years. While some believe Viking and other explorers may have arrived earlier the Wampanoag lived in this region in relative isolation from the other continents until the 17th century.
In balance with nature, the elements, the earth and planets historically our people have endured organically and sustainably as part of a greater circle of life. We recognize creation as something larger than ourselves that bestows many gifts including the earth, the sun, the moon, and the wind in the four directions.
Sustained by hunting, fishing and planting, our Wampanoag ancestors built homes made from cedar frames; reed mats; and bark coverings exhibiting a sophisticated knowledge of the impacts of the elements and insulating factors. They developed a matriarchal clan structure within inter-connected villages. Each village was led by a sachem (a male chief) or sonksqua (a female chief) informed by clan leaders who were more often women, with the chief then reporting to a supreme leader, massasoit. This was recognized as the "Longhouse" style governance. It was a form of governing so representative of all citizens it was identified as a model used by the Founding Fathers for the democracy that became the United States of America.
During the 1600s our people experienced a period of European exploration and colonization that dramatically altered the course of our nation. Traders brought new technology including metal pots to outlast clay, tools and firearms potentially more efficient than stone or bow, and blankets and coats not made of hide but some carrying a hidden danger. In 1620 the Mayflower brought Pilgrims from England, an iconic group of colonists who occupied the Wampanoag village of Patuxet. The coastal Wampanoag village had been laid bare when its inhabitants were wiped out by a plague of European origin in 1616, commonly believed to have been transmitted to the people of Patuxet in the process of trading.
Lacking immunity to European illness, our ancestors were ravaged by disease, wiping out many entire villages. Among other unwelcome impacts of early European encounters was the practice of kidnapping and enslavement of our men, and perhaps most ironic given that many colonists left Europe to worship freely, was the settler's determination to civilize our people by assimilation to Christianity.
Still, with defenses weakened by the loss of so many warriors to plague, Massasoit Ousamequin was wise to seek an alliance with his new neighbors in Plymouth in 1621, offering mutual protection against the Narragansett or any other invasion. After a devastating first winter during which half of the colonists died, the Pilgrims also benefitted from Wampanoag knowledge of survival in the new world.
Prior to the plagues and colonization there were at least 69 thriving Wampanoag villages. Fifty years later only 23 of those villages remained and missionaries were making a concerted effort to convert our people in Mashpee to Christianity.
Overall colonization and the Puritan's dogmatic crusade for religious conversion had devastating social and cultural consequences on our people. Language, culture and spirituality were discouraged in deference to Puritan morality and proprietorship of land. This philosophy of "manifest destiny" - the belief that God removed indigenous people to make way for the Puritans – led to the appropriation of our homelands, creating a climate of hostility ripe for conflict.
Forty years after forging peace with the Pilgrims, Ousamequin died in 1661 and his son Wamsutta became the massasoit. Known to the English as "Alexander," Wamsutta died a year later under suspicious circumstances after visiting the English in Plymouth. His brother Metacomet, who the colonists called Philip, ascended to lead our people during an uneasy period marked by mistrust and subjugation.
In April of 1671 Metacomet was called to Cohannut, a village the English called Taunton, to engage in a treaty on behalf of his people with Governor Thomas Prence of Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay Colony. The two men signed a promise to lay down arms inside the Taunton meetinghouse. The treaty provided little relief for our people who continued to be dispossessed of land, oppressed and unfairly persecuted in English courts.
In June of 1675 Metacomet led the resistance we now know as King Philip's War. The conflict, which resulted in thousands of colonial and Native casualties and ended after the death of Metacomet in August of 1676, is considered the bloodiest war ever waged on American soil.
During the conflict a group of Cohannut Wampanoag were among those transferred to Mashpee, one of several praying Indian plantations (later called Indian districts or Indian reservations). After the war, when surviving Wampanoag were forced to adopt Christianity or be considered an enemy to the colony and sold into slavery, these plantations became our only refuge.
In 1685 a stretch of territory from Cape Cod Bay to Vineyard Sound including land in present day Sandwich, Mashpee, Barnstable and Falmouth was deeded to the Wampanoag of the praying Indian plantation of Mashpee in perpetuity. But like the treaty signed at Taunton, the deed provided little long-term protection to our people.
In 1763 Mashpee became incorporated as an Indian plantation by the General Court and was assigned white overseers who dominated us while providing few benefits. The overseers hired a minister who performed services in the Indian meetinghouse but discouraged Mashpee Wampanoag from attending. Our people were forced to worship outside. Overseers also leased farmland and woodlots to whites from neighboring towns and kept the profits for themselves. These neighbors also freely trespassed in Mashpee to fish and hunt.
Having fought and lost many men in the Revolutionary War, Mashpee Wampanoag understood the concept of freedom and the importance of self governance and so we petitioned to rule ourselves on several occasions but were repeatedly turned down. In May of 1833 a new self-governance petition was drafted including a demand for an end to the poaching of trees, hay and fish from our land. This resulted in the "woodlot riot" on July 1, 1833 when white farmers tested Wampanoag resolve and arrived in Mashpee to take trees. Our men overturned the white farmers' cart of lumber and in much the same spirit of defiance, ejected the white minister from the meetinghouse.
Over the objections of our people, Mashpee became a town in 1870 and the land divided into 60-acre parcels among each adult man and woman, most of whom were unable to read or write. Without knowledge or experience of land ownership, or literacy, land was easily contrived away from our people. Township stripped the tribe of the security of the original promise to hold our land "forever," but not of our pride and body politic.
By 1900, the Wampanoag Nation was reduced to three governments: The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head Aquinnah, and the Herring Pond Wampanoag Tribe. These communities remain inter-connected in tribal affairs including social and cultural events. In the 1920s our tribe established what is today the longest running public powwow east of the Mississippi.
In Mashpee we continued our long history and hard fought self-governance of our tribe by electing selectmen who were nearly exclusively Wampanoag until 1967.
In 1974 we incorporated the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Council to continue to provide leadership to our tribe after non-natives had come to dominate seats on the town of Mashpee's elected board of selectmen.
In 1975 the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Council petitioned the Bureau of Indian Affairs for acknowledgement. This occurred prior to the establishment of a federal recognition process that was developed to resist the Mashpee petition and that of other eastern tribes experiencing similar challenges. The federal recognition process became one of the most complicated, expensive and bureaucratic legal litmus tests in the country.
Seeking the return of our ancestral homelands, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Council filed a precedent setting land suit in 1976. Ultimately we were denied the opportunity to bring the class action suit including 16,000 acres in the town of Mashpee without the aforementioned acknowledgement.
While other tribes sought a congressional solution to the federal acknowledgement process that compromised their sovereignty, we elected to stay pure in the process regardless of the hurdles. After more than 30 years we became formally acknowledged by the BIA in 2007.
Today our tribe is one of two federally recognized tribes in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. We are culturally, socially and politically as viable as ever, pursuing recovery of ancestral homelands, economic development initiatives, and providing human services to tribal members. The governing political body, the Tribal Council, is balanced by traditional leadership including the chief, medicine man and clan mothers. We share our rich culture and traditions during the annual Mashpee Wampanoag Powwow attended by thousands each summer.