Mashpee Nine: A Story of Cultural Justice
Tanya H. Lee
This iconic story of American Indian integrity and resistance has roots that go back far beyond the resurgence of tribal pride and cultural revitalization of the 1970s and implications that carry forward to the plains of North Dakota today.
Forty years after 30 police officers in riot gear attacked and beat a dozen traditional drummers in the Massachusetts village of Mashpee, Paula Peters, Mashpee Wampanoag, has published Mashpee Nine: A Story of Cultural Justice, a companion volume that expands on the documentary Mashpee Nine: The Beat Goes On, released earlier this year.
The young men targeted by police are now elders, yet the incident is not widely known. “I saw the story fading away because the men who were involved, [are] not braggarts. They’re warriors,” says Peters, a former journalist, talking about her decision to spend more than two years working on the film and book.
The Mashpee Wampanoag have lived on Cape Cod for 10,000 to 15,000 years, until very recently relying almost exclusively on their knowledge of the area’s natural resources to support their families and preserve their traditions. They were spared the Trail of Tears, says Peters, because the federal government believed that they, like so many other Eastern tribes, would assimilate and disappear. “That didn’t work out so well,” she says.
What happened at 12:30 a.m. the night of July 29, 1976, had a multitude of cultural, political and social determinants.
The American Indian Movement, founded in 1968, was already in Mashpee by 1970. All across the nation American Indians, realizing that they had been excluded from the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, were beginning to assert their rightful place in history and contemporary culture, says Peters. Dozens of academic institutions were establishing Native American studies programs, law schools were beginning to teach federal Indian law and tribes were looking closely at what exactly sovereignty meant.
In Plymouth, a few miles from Mashpee, “a Wampanoag sachem had been invited to speak for the 350th anniversary of the Mayflower arrival. Organizers asked to see his remarks and they said ‘Oh, no, you mustn’t say these things, even though they’re all true; we mustn’t hear this. This is a celebration. We don’t need to be reminded of what really happened,” explains Peters.
“So they censored him and he said, ‘Then I’m taking my speech to the top of Cole’s Hill and I will give it before an audience of Native people.’ And boy, did Native people show up en masse. There was 250 Native people who came, and AIM came. They disrupted the annual Pilgrim’s Progress Parade… it was just a huge demonstration. It became the first of an annual National Day of Mourning that occurs every day on Thanksgiving now,” she says.
At the same time, Mashpee was experiencing a massive influx of newcomers. “Between 1965 and 1975 the growth in Mashpee went from a year round population of about 650 people to over 2500 people. The population tripled in just over ten years. So that created quite a lot of animosity in the community,” says Peters. Developers were tearing up the land, destroying habitat, cutting off wildlife trails and denying access to the beaches where people had been digging quahogs for thousands of years.
Tribal members, however, were teaching their children ancient arts and crafts and building a replica of a 17th century Indian village on a piece of land called 12 Acres, which had always been a powerful gathering place.
On July 28, the tribe held a feast and celebration at 12 Acres. It was very well-attended and drumming went on into the evening. The newcomers to town “didn’t necessarily understand Mashpee very well. So the sound of the drum, while it was a celebrated sound of a tradition among our people, really came off as kind of a threat to the newcomers,” says Peters.
Someone called the police, who raided the site in the middle of the night. They were part of an area-wide tactical team that had been formed on Cape Cod in anticipation of civil unrest that never happened. They consequently had nothing to do and were having trouble justifying their budget requests to the towns, a fact that Peters dug up in her research.
Nine people were arrested, eight of them tribal members. “Of the dozen or so that were there, some of them scattered and nine were arrested in a really brutal fashion. They were beaten, thrown into a paddy wagon, once they were in there handcuffed behind their backs the last officer before he slammed the door filled the back of the paddy wagon with mace,” says Peters.
The trial started in December and the Mashpee Nine were defended by an extraordinary young attorney from Cambridge who worked for food and a cause—he knew, better than the men he was defending, that this case was about a lot more than drumming. It was part of a national movement and what was at stake was cultural survival for the hundreds of tribes that had escaped termination in the 1950s and 1960s or that had not yet been able to gain federal recognition.
In the documentary, produced by Peters with Talia Landry, Mashpee Wampanoag, and Bill Nay, the Mashpee Nine speak of Lew Gurwitz with tremendous respect and fondness. Among other high points was Gurwitz’s success in getting the judge to allow the tribal members to swear to tell the truth on a sacred pipe rather than the Bible, a symbol of oppression.
To everyone’s surprise, five months after the trial started, the judge found all defendants not guilty. No drawn-out appeals, no more almost-impossible-to-pay court costs. It was simply over because the judge determined that law enforcement had, not for the first time and surely not for the last in Indian country, overstepped its authority.
The trial did not get as much national coverage as it might have because another lawsuit involving the Mashpee Wampanog overshadowed it. “The other thing you have to know about that era is a month to the day after these guys were arrested, the tribe filed the precedent-setting lawsuit for the return of our tribal land. That dominated the headlines. The tribe sued for return of our ancestral homelands here in Mashpee. So essentially we sued for the whole town,” says Peters.
An Indian tribe suing to get back an entire town was earth-shattering in the context of the reaffirmation of cultural pride and the efforts of the federal government, particularly the FBI, which incidentally had trained several of the officers involved in the raid in Mashpee, to quell that movement.
The tribe eventually lost the land suit on the grounds that it did not have standing as a tribe to sue since it did not have federal recognition. The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe won recognition in 2007 and in 2015 the BIA put land into trust for the tribe in Taunton, Massachusetts, where the tribe plans to build the First Light Resort and Casino.
When Peters made the documentary, she had no intention of writing a book. But something happened. “The book tells the story in three voices. There’s the voice of the context, then there’s the active voice of the incident itself through people who experienced it, the newspaper accounts that I was able to dig up [the court records have all been purged],” she says.
The third voice, an unnamed participant, is that of a man who was 15 at the time of the incident. At first reluctant to tell his story, “he came to me at the end of the process and really became kind of a muse for me to write the book. His story was just mind-blowing. And for so many reasons, his identity had to be protected. This is his life from that time forward, he’s just had such a hard time, alcoholism, he spent some time behind bars, that sort of thing. His life hasn’t been a bed of roses. But unburdening himself of what happened on that night became a catalyst for him to heal himself. So that’s really why I ended up writing the book is because he kind of healed me too. He was cathartic for me. And still is,” says Peters.
The story is told. It puts into context the role of an Eastern tribe in the cultural revitalization that has dominated American Indian life for half a century. And it reminds readers that the expression of solidarity that is happening today in North Dakota has deep roots as part of a vibrant tradition of strength, resilience and perseverance.