Some Wampanoag Tribe Members Leery of Plymouth 400 Commemoration

Jul 22, 2014

This image depicts the arrival of the Pilgrims in 1620 at Plymouth. Plans are underway to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the landing. But some local Wampanoag are concerned that their perspective on the historical event will not be adequately told.
Credit Art by N. Currier via Wikimedia Commons

For the Wampanoag who have called coastal Massachusetts their home for more than 10,000 years, the founding of Plymouth in 1620, doesn’t feel that far removed, nor does its 400th anniversary bring reason to rejoice.

“We won’t be celebrating," said Ramona Peters, the chief historical preservation officer for the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe. "I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s not many native people that will be involved.”

As Peters sees it, the Wampanoag story and the Pilgrim story -- they can’t be put on the same stage.

“There’s an Indian story and then there’s a pilgrim story," she said. "It’s not a balanced story. It wasn’t balanced back then, it’s not balanced now.”

But organizers of Plymouth 400 say they want balance. Michele Pecararo is executive director for Plymouth 400. She sees the anniversary as an opportunity for the Wampanoag to share their side of the story,

“We really want the Wampanoag people to be able to use this anniversary to tell their own story," Pecararo said. "This 400th is, I think, a really great opportunity for us all to have all the stories told, including the Wampanoag story, told by the Wampanoag people and not by somebody else.”

While Pecararo and Plymouth 400 invite local Wampanoag to share their story, the upcoming anniversary of the Pilgrim’s arrival still has some Wampanoag concerned. Jim Baker, former historian at Plymouth Plantation, says previous commemorations  -- such as the 300th anniversary in 1920 and the 350th anniversary in 1970 -- lacked Native involvement.

“The Wampanoag were, well, for one thing, they didn’t want to be involved, and nobody wanted them involved, I guess," Baker said.

But Baker says failures of past commemorations shouldn’t stand in the way of current attempts to share the Wampanoag perspective.

"Unless you get the story out all it, it’s just going to continue to be people flapping at each other," he said.

Although Plymouth is commonly called the birthplace of America, the colony of Jamestown was founded 13 years earlier. Which made its 400th anniversary in 2007. Like Plymouth, Jamestown organized a large-scale commemorative event. And like the Wampanoag, Native tribes in Virginia weren’t sure they wanted to participate. Stephen Adkins, Chief of the Chickahominy Tribe in Virginia, says he had concerns.

“Quite frankly I was skeptical," Adkins said, "and why is because historically our story hasn’t been told - it had been ignored and hasn’t been deemed important."

But Jeanne Zeidler, Executive Director of Jamestown 400 wants the event to be something Native Virginia tribes could feel proud of.  

“This was an opportunity for them to really educate our community, our state, our nation about the real history of Virginia indians, which they rightfully felt was ignored and not really understood,” she said.

Looking back, Chief Adkins says he’s proud to have been a part of the Jamestown 400 commemoration.

“You know," Adkins said, "I think at the end of the day all the tribes were glad that we had participated -- again, that our story was told.”

Back in Plymouth, Tim Turner has many of the same hopes as Adkins - that he’ll be able to tell history from a Native perspective. Turner is manager of the Wampanoag Indigenous Program at Plymouth Plantation. He's also on the advisory council for Plymouth 400.

Turner wants people to realize that after all these years, Native people are still here and that there’s more to the story than we’re told in history books and Hollywood films.

“You might walk by 100 native people and not know that they’re native," Turner said. "Getting rid of the Hollywood stigma of native people - stereotypes, is something that as native people we’re really trying to get rid of.”

Mashpee Wampanoag Paula Peters also says she joined the Plymouth 400th committee to make sure the Native story gets told.

“I think it’s important for people to know and understand that pre-colonial contact with tribes in New England and all up and down the coast was not always very friendly and there were encounters that were really harmful,” Peters said.

In advance of the 400th Anniversary in 2020, Peters and other Wampanoag will commemorate a different anniversary. November 2014 marks the 400th anniversary of the kidnapping of Squanto and 19 other young Wampanoag men by European traders in 1614. Their abductions foreshadowed troubles that would affect the lives of Native people throughout the region.  Peters is working with the Indian Spiritual and Training Council to produce an exhibit that will debut at the Plymouth Public Library in November. The exhibit is endorsed by Plymouth 400, but Peters expects that not everyone will embrace the Native story being told in such graphic detail.

“In a way it’s kind of a test of the integrity of the Plymouth 400," she said. "We’re watching very carefully how well it will be received and we hope that people understand that this is our story, this is our truth.”

During the next 5 years, event organizers, community members, native and non-native people will be working to try and figure out how to tell the story of Plymouth. And what makes it so difficult is that that story, it changes depending on your perspective.