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Mashpees wait for recognition nearly 400 years after first Thanksgiving

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MASHPEE, Mass. - Their ancestors traveled through the woods in 1623 to join a new settlement of Englishmen in a harvest feast, the nucleus of the national holiday of Thanksgiving.

Yet nearly four centuries later, the Mashpee Wampanoags wait for federal recognition.

It's a wait that Tribal Council President Glenn Marshall hopes will soon be over. "We're number three on the Ready to Go Active List," he said recently at tribal headquarters, on land wedged between a wildlife refuge and a fancy Cape Cod resort community.

"We expect to go active relatively soon."

Marshall said he doesn't expect to meet the kind of furor whipped up by town and state officials in neighboring Connecticut earlier this year when the BIA's Bureau of Acknowledgement and Research put two Pequot tribes on the active list.

Open hostility, he said, is confined locally to a small group headed by a former selectman.

But his tribe of 1,400 members fights constantly to maintain its historic rights. Marshall himself, white-haired but muscular at 51, was pulled from coastal waters and handcuffed by local wildlife officers while exercising his clamming rights. He is suing for false arrest and endangerment.

The Wampanoag struggle started, and some might say peaked, just two generations after the first Thanksgiving when the Chief Sachem Philip, also known as Metacomet, launched attacks to roll back the spreading English settlements.

King Philip's War, from 1675 to '76, still stands as the bloodiest war, per capita, ever fought by Euro-Americans, with a civilian and combatant casualty rate far greater than in the Civil War or either world war.

The result for Metacomet's followers was virtual extermination or enslavement, but Christian converts in the remoter "praying towns" of southern Cape Cod and the off-shore islands managed to hang on. (The Wampanoags of Gay Head on Martha's Vineyard received federal recognition in 1987, the only tribe in Massachusetts to have it.)

The largest group of survivors was the Indians of Mashpee. (If Cape Cod looks like a flexed arm, they would be on the shoulder blade.) The colonial government left them a 50-square-mile reserve with their own magistrates, but allotments and land deals in the 19th century whittled it down to today's 55 acres.

As late as the 1960s, Marshall said, Wampanoag voters controlled the town government. The current round in the struggle began in the '60s with a new invasion.

Developers started building fancy resort communities for upscale year-round settlers (drawn perhaps by the glamour that the Kennedys were giving to Hyannis Port about 10 miles down the road.)

In 1976, a rejuvenated tribal council led by President Russell Peters decided to try to stop the over-building. The strategy was to bring a federal lawsuit to reclaim lost tribal land and freeze work on the town's remaining open acreage.

But the suit ran into a major setback. Marshall said tribe and town officials were close to an out-of-court settlement for 500 to 600 acres of land and $4 million. But the town had hired a big-league lawyer named James Sinclair of the Hale & Dorr law firm, "who had just come off of defending Richard Nixon," Marshall said.

Sinclair insisted on going to court, where he argued that the Mashpee Wampanoags did not have a continuous existence as a tribe. A local jury agreed and federal Judge Walter Skinner dismissed the suit.

The memory still rankles with Marshall and the Wampanoags. This summer the tribe and the town of Mashpee started talks about a settlement of the land claims and about town support for a congressional bill recognizing the tribe. But the talks abruptly ended when the town retained Hale & Dorr.

"We flat out told the town we would not sit at the table with them as long as Hale & Dorr was at the table," Marshall said. The town is trying to work out an arrangement to keep the law firm as advisers but not involve it in negotiations.

Marshall said he is skeptical. "We're going to hang out and see what's going to happen."

In the meantime, the Mashpees are winning on another front, preserving the tribal fishing rights. Two tribal members were arrested in 1995 while raking for clams in coastal waters near the town of Bourne. The appeal went to the state's Supreme Judicial Court in 1999 and the judges unanimously upheld the tribe's "aboriginal rights" for sustenance fishing.

But word was slow getting back to the town of Bourne.

A boat from its Natural Resource Department picked up Marshall while he was clamming in 4-foot-deep water. "I was hand-cuffed without a life preserver while the boat crossed 20-foot deep water," he said.

Although the charges were dismissed when he reached Bourne, he said the dangerous conditions of his arrest were enough to give him grounds to sue the town. His case has survived several attempts by the town to throw it out and is still working its way through the courts.

The tribal council now works out of a two-story, wood house, donated to the tribe and moved to acreage left to it by the late tribal leader Alvin Pocknett.

Pulling out a map of the 19th century land allotments, he pointed to the Pocknett family holding. He noted the council provides a range of services to its sizable local population. About 55 percent of the tribe lives within 25 miles of Mashpee, Marshall said.

It runs a domestic violence prevention and education program, a work incentive project and its own health department.

The tribe also works hard to preserve its culture, Marshall said. He beams when asked about its language program. He said 31 students are mastering the tribal tongue, the "N" dialect of Algonquian.

"We have several native speakers," he said. "They speak it fluently.

"Actually, we teach the Gay Head Wampanoags," Marshall said.

A tribal member, Jesse Little Doe Fermino, who recently graduated from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is working on a grant application to prepare a dictionary and grammar of the language, declared extinct by the Smithsonian Institution 25 years ago.

The Mashpees are also bringing the Indian element back to Thanksgiving.

Members of the tribe put on traditional wear recently for a re-enactment of the feast which was filmed by National Geographic.

Marshall recalls that on the last day of the shoot, a non-Indian member of the production team started crying. They asked why, and she replied that she felt she was witnessing the moment when their culture was doomed.

But Marshall emphasizes his people have survived. No matter how or when federal recognition comes through, he said, "We don't need the government to tell us we are Indian. We have always been a tribe. We have never not been a tribe."