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Correcting history: Telling ‘our’ story

Guest columnist


or nearly 400 years, colonial ideology has dominated the telling of the story of our nation’s beginning. While the Pilgrims are cast in hues of courage and righteousness, historians have typically treated the indigenous people as ignorant rebellious savages who resisted missionary efforts to be humanized. The Native people and culture necessarily sacrificed for the good of the advancement of manifest destiny.

It is an easy leap … right over the truth.

Nathaniel Philbrick did it with “Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War.” The book, published last year by Viking, was hailed a “great read” in rave reviews and ascended to the top of The New York Times best seller list. In it, Philbrick told the story he painstakingly culled from existing documentation primarily written by colonists and filtered through his own life experience void of the indigenous reality and punctuated by stereotypes and hallmark myths like the Thanksgiving holiday.

He is among hundreds of authors who have marginalized and romanticized Native people, but perhaps the first to participate in a public forum challenging the portrayal of the savage 17th century Wampanoag juxtaposed with the saintly Pilgrim.

In early October, Philbrick sat on a panel sponsored by University of Massachusetts and Plimoth Plantation that included Native scholars and historians clearly stacked against him. The audience of about 200 people included students, educators and many indigenous people, as well as a busload of employees from Plimoth Plantation, a bicultural living history museum where the unfiltered 17th century Pilgrim and Wampanoag story is on display.

In his defense, Philbrick is also the first popular author to present both sides of this saga up to and beyond King Philip’s War; and while his narrative is told through the colonial voice, he does expose the injustice toward the Wampanoag, which inspired the conflict. What he fails to do is portray the Wampanoag with the same human qualities as the Pilgrims or give them proper credit for defending their ancestral homeland of more than 10,000 years.

Colonization of the Wampanoag territory in southeastern Massachusetts, which began with the Pilgrims’ arrival on the Mayflower in 1620, had no regard for existing land rights, social customs or spiritual beliefs of the people native to the land.

European setters, who ironically came here to express their own religious freedom, established a society that was both intolerant and oppressive of the Wampanoag. To add insult to injury, there was no consequence for the colonists’ violated treaties and broken promises.

I can say this so glibly because I am a modern Wampanoag writer.

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In “Mayflower,” however, Philbrick told the story from his perspective. He told his story which, at the end of the day, is his truth. A truth strongly criticized with deep emotion by his fellow panelists and indigenous people in the audience, who picked at the text like plucking ticks off of a dog seizing the most blatant examples of inaccuracies and offensive portrayals.

But he is not the first writer to slant the telling of this story in favor of the Pilgrims or the worst offender of Native sensibilities. In fact, I think he sincerely believed he was being fair to both cultures in his book. He also was brave enough to fall on the sword for all the books written on this topic that fail to adequately voice the indigenous story.

And as a celebrated American author, this was no small gesture. His participation in the forum was generous and opened a dialog for serious consideration by historians, educators and – perhaps most importantly – students who are the next generation of storytellers.

We would hope that in the future, authors make a greater effort to fairly portray Native people: but the answer is not to have authors like Philbrick tell the story from a Native perspective. That would lack sincerity and integrity. Quite honestly, no one would believe it.

The answer is to have Native people write our history from our own true perspective.

It is a concept not lost on Philbrick, who in spite of his chiding has offered to write an afterward about the forum to be included in the second printing of “Mayflower” and to facilitate the effort to publish the works of Native historians.

His gesture comes on the heels of the United Nations’ approval of a Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in September that includes language specific to the recording of history. Article 14 of the declaration states:

“Indigenous peoples have the right to revitalize, use, develop and transmit to future generations their histories, languages, oral traditions, philosophies, writing systems and literatures, and to designate and retain their own names for communities, places and persons.

“States shall take effective measures, whenever any right of indigenous peoples may be threatened, to ensure this right is protected and also to ensure that they can understand and be understood in political, legal and administrative proceedings, where necessary through the provision of interpretation or by other appropriate means.”

It seems the time to make history “our” story has finally come.

Paula Peters, Mashpee Wampanoag, is the interim associate director of marketing at Plimoth Plantation.