The Mashpee Wampanoag: American Heroes

Tribal leaders at the Mashpee Wampanoag rally on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, November 14, 2018. Photo courtesy of Alter-Native Media.

Guest Essay

Published November 22, 2018

Editor’s Note: Sometimes called the “Thanksgiving” tribe, the Mashpee Wampanoag were rendered a severe blow to its tribal sovereignty with a decision to take land out of trust by the Trump administration when the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs in September 2018. This essay presents the long history of the tribe and its right to exist with full rights to self-govern. 

Nearly 400 years ago in the fall of 1620 the Mayflower landed on what is now Cape Cod with its first English settlers. They were greeted by none other than the Wampanoag Indians. Historians credit the Wampanoag with the very survival of the settlers as the Wampanoag assisted the new colonialists in surviving the first harsh winters that they had to endure. Additionally it was the Wampanoag that made the first land grant to the English colonists at Plymouth. 1

This began a peaceful coexistence that consisted of commercial trade and alliances of all kinds between Indian tribes and the English.

The peace between Plymouth and the Wampanoag completely broke down when three Indians loyal to Wampanoag leader King Phillip were found guilty of murder of a powerful ‘Christian Indian’ in a Plymouth colonial court. Two of the Indians were hanged. King Philip and his supporters saw this as a direct threat to their power. What resulted was a conflict that embroiled all of Southern New England in what some historians claim to be the deadliest conflict in U.S. history. This was called King Philip’s War. The outcome of the war saw the Native population of New England reduced by 40 percent, with many Indians sold off as slaves to the Caribbean Islands. 2

Some the Wampanoag were resettled at Mashpee on Cape Cod. Here the Mashpee Wampanoag that had survived the conflict went on to once again live in relative peace with a rapidly growing population of New England’s colonists. This ‘peace’ was not easily attained however.

In the year of 1700, with community cohesiveness and strong leadership under the first Native preacher, Simon Popmonit, the Mashpee Wampanoag, became the first tribe in U.S. history to protest to a colonial court against forced servitude in settler houses. In 1710 Briant led the tribe in remonstrations against neighboring Barnstable settlers who made claims on Mashpee forest land. 3

It was this forested land that surrounded the meeting house that Briant led that was the foundation of the community’s sustenance. Although surrounded by deforested Massachusetts towns, the Mashpee reserve remained a sustainable woodland environment. At Mashpee, a combination of controlled burning and limited cutting of firewood helped to produce an abundant open forest for game animals, birds, and human inhabitants. The continuance of an Indigenous land tenure system in which the land was held in common and could not be sold without collective consent played a crucial role. 4

In 1746 in response to Indian complaints against white settlers the Massachusetts Government passed the “Act for Better Regulating the Indians.” This Act appointed regulators to individual Indian communities. These regulators stood to further steal from Indians and encroach further on their rights.

In 1753 the Mashpee Wampanoag demanded that either the guardianship system be abolished or they be permitted to elect their own guardians. When the Massachusetts government failed to act, the Mashpee sent a representative all the way to England to directly petition King George II. The Royal Council of England ordered the governor and general court of Massachusetts Bay Colony to examine the petition and urged them to rectify the situation. Their efforts resulted in the ‘Mashpee’ Act which was restored self-government to Mashpee and banned settlement and wood poaching.

The Revolutionary War wiped out the Mashpee’s legal success. It brought new threats as well. In 1833, when Mohegan revolutionary and author, William Apess, traveled to Mashpee to meet his fellow Native brothers the Wampanoag, he found in their meetinghouse Phineas Fish preaching to an all white congregation. Fish had been sent by Harvard University to preach to the Indians, but none wanted to hear him. Fish lived on the land and benefited greatly from his position while serving no one he was sent to serve. The English, the United States, and now Harvard University had greatly offended the Mashpee Wampanoag.

Apess was adopted by the Wampanoag and they together began to work to defend their rights. They would lead what would be called the ‘Mashpee Revolt.’ Their first act of self-determination was to address the wood poaching issue in their forest.

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They posted signs declaring it their land. They also petitioned Harvard for the reclamation of their meetinghouse. They exposed Phineas Fish and demand he be removed from his post. Further they self organized to be called the “Nationally Assembly of the ‘Mashpee’ Tribe.” 5

In their quest to have their forests their own, they enforced their petition regarding wood poaching peacefully. After having posted notices in the entire forest putting all settlers on notice that wood collecting was not allowed, it was on July 1 st , 1833 that they peacefully unloaded settlers wagons that were taking wood. Apess and his companions were arrested. Ironically, this occurred on July 4 th . They were charged with ‘riot, assault,’ and ‘trespassing’ (on their own community land). They received sympathy and support from some including the Barnstable Journal who published their words that compared the ‘Mashpee Revolt’ to the American Revolution saying, “We unloaded two wagons of wood” in place of “English ships of tea”. 6

In winter of 1833-34 a Mashpee delegation presented their petition to the Massachusetts State House of Representatives. Additionally they addressed crowds at Boylston Hall and the Tremont Theater. They were well-spoken and well received in Boston. They compared their plight to that of the removal of the Cherokees, and to that of enslaved African Americans. Public support was theirs. In the spring of 1834 the Mashpee Act was passed by the Massachusetts State Senate without a single vote of distention. This Act, in part, restored self-government to the Mashpee Indians. Mashpee was incorporated as an Indian District and was granted the right to elect eight selectmen to create their own laws along with a constable that had the power of enforcement. 7

“Winning” the Mashpee Revolt was short-lived however. Unfortunately further encroachment on their land by a dominant colonial structure that valued privately owned land over community values eventually picked away at the forest reservation.

According to Jourdan Bennett-Begaye of Indian Country Today, (Interior Denies Mashpee Trust Land: ‘You do not meet definition of an Indian’) the tribe has endured various local and national challenges since this time in history.

Authored by Massachusetts Senator Henry Dawes, Indian Country was subject to the 1887 General Allotment Act or the Dawes Act which partitioned many Indian lands. While F.D.R. led the ‘New Deal for Indians too’, and passed the Indian Reorganization Act in 1934 to “conserve and develop Indian lands”, the 50’s saw the federal government reverse course and lead what was called the ‘Indian Termination Era’. Federal policies at this time aimed to eliminate tribal nations and fully assimilate Indians to mainstream American society. The 1970’s brought the American Indian Movement, and with it many tribes including the Mashpee Wampanoag, actively reignited the fight for their rights. This included tribal recognition, sovereignty in their own nations’ affairs, as well as reclamation or defense of their tribal lands.

In 1977 the Mashpee Wampanoag submitted their 54,000 page application for federal recognition. They gained federal status as a tribal nation in 2007. Due to this they were able to get the little land they had left, to be held in trust by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. These trust lands hold their museum, community government center, a future housing project, school, church, and burial grounds. They also were able to buy land for the purpose of the building a casino to finance tribal operations. Presently however, it all lies in jeopardy, due to a recent ruling by the Bureau of Indian Affairs that they do not qualify as ‘Indian’.

Much like the 1930s and 1950s saw a flip-flop in federal policy dealing with Indian affairs, the last two presidential administrations have see-sawed in their treatment of tribal nations. The Obama Administration through executive order supported the United Nations Declaration of Indigenous Peoples Rights. It aimed to respect the Declaration’s articles that respect various Indigenous rights. Under Obama the XL Pipeline construction was halted at Standing Rock. It was also under Obama that the Wampanoag were able to put their lands trust under the Bureau of Indian Affairs, within the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The Trump administration on the other hand has carried out a full scale assault on Indian rights. Some Native rights activists have called the Trump stance on Indian affairs a ‘New Termination Era’. The XL Pipeline at Standing Rock was given the go ahead, and it is also no coincidence that under Trump the Department of the Interior’s negative decision regarding the Mashpee Wampanoag land has been handed down.

In July 2016, the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts remanded to the Department of the Interior to consider whether the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe meets one or more of the definitions of ‘Indian’ in Section 19 of the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA). In Section 19 of the Act states that to be ‘Indian’ tribes must have been under federal jurisdiction in 1934. Although there are compelling arguments in the DOI’s 28 page decision that the tribe was under federal jurisdiction, the DOI ruled them not to be.

Cedric Woods, director of the Institute for New England Native American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston, in a recent interview with Here & Now spoke about what this decision means for the Mashpee Wampanoag.

What Mr. Woods says about what the tribe stands to lose:

“The loss of self-governance is a way to destroy tribes. Whether it’s civil action or civil activities like the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe’s language immersion school, or criminal jurisdiction, both of those things are essential powers of self-governance.”

Of course the Wampanoag have been fighting for their rights for 400 years and they will continue to do so. The clearest path to be able to retain their lands and self-determination comes in the form Bill S.2628 introduced to Congress by Massachusetts House Representative Ed Markey and Senator Elizabeth Warren, “To reaffirm the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Reservation, and for other purposes.” Passage of this bill would legislatively override the D.I.O. decision and guarantee the Wampanoag their land and right to self govern. When Cedric Woods was asked whether lawmakers will support the bill, he said: “They may not want to, but I’d say they’re morally obligated to do so.”

For the Mashpee Wampanoag dispossession is, historically and currently, not their destiny but rather a disjuncture. 8

Daniel Horgan is an occasional contributor to the European based Transcend Media Service, and is the founder of The Indigenous Connection Project.

Footnotes: 1Wikipedia, Wampanoag, Consequences of War

2Wikipedia, Wampanoag, Consequences of War

3The Common Pot, Recovery of Native Space in the Northeast: University of Minnesota Press; 2008; p.166 Lisa Brooks

4The Common Pot, Recovery of Native Space in the Northeast: University of Minnesota Press; 2008; p.168 Lisa Brooks

5The Common Pot, Recovery of Native Space in the Northeast: University of Minnesota Press; 2008; p.183 Lisa Brooks

The Common Pot, Recovery of Native Space in the Northeast: University of Minnesota Press; 2008; p.187 Lisa Brooks

7The Common Pot, Recovery of Native Space in the Northeast: University of Minnesota Press; 2008; p.196 Lisa Brooks

8The Common Pot, Recovery of Native Space in the Northeast: University of Minnesota Press; 2008; p.165 Lisa Brooks

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