Mashpee Wampanoag Ponder Federal Recognition Status

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – Members of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe in Massachusetts gathered at Harvard University’s Peabody Museum on April 24 for a panel discussion with activist Winona LaDuke on the specific issues facing tribes of the Northeast. Conversation turned to the tribe’s recent preliminary acknowledgement from the BIA as a federally recognized Indian tribe.

The Mashpee Wampanoag were among the earliest Native peoples of North America to have significant contact with Europeans. Almost 400 years ago, they greeted the Pilgrims who arrived on the Mayflower near what is now the town of Plymouth. It is their story that has been mythologized in the celebration of Thanksgiving.

John Peters Jr., a Mashpee Wampanoag tribal member and executive director of the Massachusetts Commission on Indian Affairs, recalled what the town of Mashpee was like.

“When it was only our people, we ran everything. Then other people came to our community and conflicts arose. We couldn’t go to our fishing grounds, houses were built in our hunting grounds and town meetings were manipulated. Things got away from us before we understood what was going on. We’ve been on that land for thousands of years. It’s part of us. Seeing it change has been devastating for many of us.”

Linda Coombs, a member of the related Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head, said, “One of the things I’ve always run across is that people will often refer to us as ‘remnants’ or ‘fragments’ of a people. People ask, ‘How far back can you trace your heritage?’ I think, ‘All the way.’ Other people say their great-great-great-grandmother was an Indian. For the most part, they are non-Native people who had a Native person marry in. That is their view of Native people. They do not have a sense that there are whole families, whole nations left.”

The beleaguered history of the tribe was recalled by Ramona Peters. “We’ve survived since the Mayflower by virtue of our love for each other and for the land. We were invisible, left alone in the woods for many years. Then the land became attractive, and we became more visible. We were a reservation until 1870, when we became free and removed the missionaries. We’ve been free until maybe next year, when we’ll be wards of the government again.”

After decades of work, the tribe has just been accorded preliminary recognition by the BIA. The only other federally recognized tribe in the state is the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah).

Federal recognition, however, is not an unmitigated good, according to the panelists.

Said Ramona Peters: “It is very hard to live as a Wampanoag in this country, and being federally recognized will make it even more difficult for us to live as Wampanoag people on our own land.

“I’m not impressed by federal recognition, but I know that many of my people who have been culturally deprived need that. There has been a huge effort to de-Indianize us. Now we’re going to be discriminated against in a positive way. People in neighboring towns are congratulating us like it’s the first time they’ve ever seen us. We have a lot of unanswered questions and many tasks ahead.”

Her brother, John Peters Jr., also has mixed feelings about federal recognition. “I feel as if they are anointing us with preliminary federal recognition. But the federal government has always known who we were.

“We were trying to protect our land when we filed the land claim suit in 1976. Our instructions are to protect the land. We found ourselves in another arena that we didn’t understand – the courts. They challenged us to meet the criteria of being a tribe and put us before an all-white jury. We didn’t know what the criteria were and the judge didn’t tell us until after we’d presented our evidence. We presented evidence; then the judge determined what the criteria were; then he instructed the jury. Now our land is 90 percent developed; taxes are forcing us off our land; we have to deal with pollution and traffic jams.

“The question today is, What do we do to follow our instructions and take care of the land and communicate that to our neighbors? What approach will we take? How do we fit into this world? How will we provide for future generations and teach them to carry on? Federal recognition is just another tool we will learn how to use as we continue on our path.”

Another tribal member, Anne Fox, said, “I am hesitant about being associated with the federal government, but I am honoring my elders who have worked hard on this for 30 years because it will help other tribal members in regard to health issues, the education of our young people, and obtaining housing.”

Federal recognition could be a useful tool in gaining resources to fund all of those needs. “But it will not promote our cultural traditions. It’s up to us to do that. We all have to be supportive of each other, now more than ever. We deserve everything that is available to us – so many resources have been taken away from us in Mashpee. If this is a way to get some of this back, then fine.”

According to LaDuke, national identity is not a matter that should be determined by the BIA. “That is the business of our nations and our clans.”

The basic conflict, she said, is that although Native Americans should be the richest people in this country, they are the poorest. “My tribe [Mississippi Band of Anishinaabeg] is like the Bangladesh of Minnesota. We need more federal programs, health care, food, schools.

“The federal government does not fulfill [its] trust responsibility to Native peoples, or fulfills it only on a convenience basis. But federal recognition does get tribes some legal support in heated battles with states and counties. It’s a very complex situation and it will be interesting to see how it works out for people out here.”

History has taught some very tough lessons, and perhaps it makes sense to have fairly low expectations of what advantages recognition will bring. “Once we start adding federal money into the school system, they’ll treat our children better,” said Ramona Peters.

The panel discussion was sponsored by Cultural Survival, a nonprofit organization dedicated to defending the rights of indigenous peoples around the world.