BOSTON – A best-selling narrative history about the first colonists who settled in the Wampanoag homelands provided a springboard for a forum in which crucial questions about writing history were raised – and some were answered.
“Talking History: Including Indigenous Voices” took place at the University of Massachusetts, Boston on Oct. 10 and featured Nathaniel Philbrick, author of “Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War.” The book tells the story of the Mayflower’s arrival in 1620, and the relationships and events between colonizers and the indigenous Wampanoags over the next five decades leading up to King Philip’s War – “one of the deadliest wars ever fought on American soil” and one which most Americans know little about, Philbrick said.
The Plimoth Plantation, a Smithsonian Institution Museum Affiliate, presents a bicultural recreation of 17th century Plymouth, sponsored the event with the university’s anthropology department and the Fiske Center for Archaeological Research.
John McDonough, Plimoth Plantation’s executive director, welcomed the audience of around 300 people, acknowledging the Mashpee and Aquinnah Wampanoag, the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation, the Narragansett, Pequots, Navaho, Micmac and Abenaki people who attended.
“Sharing history is both crucial and essential work. It’s a wonderful and sometimes perilous responsibility,” McDonough said.
McDonough touched on a theme that was reiterated by panel members – that history is a continuum of words and actions that reverberate through time. History is presented at Plimoth Plantation in a way that “encourages a new level of understanding about present-day issues affecting communities around the world,” McDonough said.
Joan Lester, professor of American Indian studies at Tufts University, moderated and framed the discussion with questions about the obligations and responsibilities of both historians and readers.
Are historians obliged to represent all participants? Lester asked. Where does an author go when there are no written sources? Does the reader have a responsibility to develop the critical thinking skills needed to recognize bias? And how do authors and readers move beyond longstanding stereotypes and misconceptions to a fuller, more accurate and respectful telling of the American story?
Philbrick said his intention in writing “Mayflower” was to throw light on the years leading up to King Philip’s War, showing that contrary to “the myth of the first Thanksgiving, not all was sweetness and light between the English and the Indians and that much of the brutality and injustice we associate with the American Indian wars of the West occurred 250 years earlier in the Plymouth colony.”
Representing the Indian perspective was the biggest challenge since virtually all of the primary documents are written by the English.
“What is desperately needed, I feel, is a book by Wampanoags to tell us their side of the story” through the tribe’s oral traditions and a growing understanding of the Wampanoag language, Philbrick said.
Maurice Foxx, Mashpee Wampanoag, talked about the redactions in history, such as information about the 15th century papal bulls describing indigenous peoples as “savage” and giving explorers permission to seize their lands and possessions and enslave their populations.
“People who came to this country were already biased; they had already created a kind of racism in their minds about the kinds of people they were going to meet here,” Foxx said. He is chairman of the Massachusetts Commission on Indian Affairs, director of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Museum, and Wampanoag Confederation’s repatriation coordinator.
But Americans in general are not inclined to learn about Indian history because the country’s early history is an embarrassing narrative of slavery and injustice, Foxx said.
“There’s a very serious issue about who these people [the Pilgrims] really were and what right did they really have to come to this country and do the damage they did to the American Indian,” Foxx said.
Writers need to go to indigenous people in order to gain understanding and write “a true book,” Foxx said.
Marge Bruchac, Abenaki, described the narrative history’s “recolonizing methodology” that reinforces old stereotypes – portraying Europeans as “the norm” against the “abnorm” of indigenous people, for example, or expressing surprise at indigenous peoples’ intelligence or resourcefulness. Bruchac is an anthropology doctoral candidate at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, specializing in the representation of Northeastern Native peoples from the 17th century forward.
“I think the appropriate questions to be asking are what do the Wampanoag people need to do to preserve their own language and culture and that is for them to answer,” Bruchac said.
Linda Coombs, Aquinnah Wampanoag and the associate director of the Wampanoag Indigenous Program at Plimoth Plantation, talked about of the Wopanaak Language Reclamation Project as one of the best ways for Wampanoag people “to be and remain who they are, and to define themselves and be represented as they see fit in the world.”
John Kemp, associate director of colonial interpretation at Plimoth Plantation, and Neal Salisbury, author and professor of history at Smith College, completed the six-person panel.
Kemp noted the increasing sense of responsibility of Plimoth Plantation museum staff over the past 20 years to represent the indigenous perspective.
“We want to learn more to be able to tell the full story with all the people that are part of it,” Kemp said.
Each person is a keeper of history, with built-in biases, Salisbury said. Philbrick wanted readers to understand the power the Mayflower story has for Americans, Salisbury said.
“He’s to be commended for wanting Americans to look beyond the myth of the first Thanksgiving to what actually did happen, to see that it turned into a very bloody situation where Native Americans were dispossessed,” Salisbury said.
That dispossession and the other injustices imposed on the indigenous peoples “clearly is not just in the past but also in the present. I think this main curse of this country is going to be there until we come to terms with who we are,” Salisbury said.