By Drew Sullivan
HANSON — Dozens came together on Thursday, July 25 for a barbecue dinner commemorating the opening of a new Wampanoag exhibit at the Nathaniel Thomas Mill.
Camp Kiwanee in Hanson played host to the event, with close to 75 people attending. The dinner featured raffles and a silent auction to benefit Hanson’s 200th Anniversary Committee, in addition to a speech by native Wampanoag member and activist Paula Peters.
Residents and supporters dined on cheeseburgers, hot dogs, potato salad, and barbecued chicken, courtesy of local catering company Fork In The Road of Bryantville, while music played throughout the lodge.
During the dinner, Peters sat down for an interview and talked at length about her tribe, its history, and its significance to Massachusetts itself.
“I see a lot of signs around here like Indian Head, roads named Indian road or that sort of thing,” said Peters. “I think that’s obviously from that rich [native] history.”
However, in 1616, a “virgin soil epidemic” as Peters refers to it as, commonly known as The Great Dying, swept through the area for three years. This ultimately decimated up to 90 percent of the indigenous population along the coastal and nearby inland regions.
Peters also spoke of the erasure and sanitization of her people’s history, along with many others in indigenous communities throughout the region and country.
“Our history has been largely marginalized and I think what people do know is out of balance from what actually occurred,” she said.
The ignorance and lack of knowledge surrounding native histories is less so in Massachusetts, according to Peters.
“I think it’s a little less here because we’re down the street from America’s hometown,” she said. “But I’ve traveled across the country and around the world since becoming involved, and there is this overall ignorance to it once you step outside the region.”
The lasting impact of the Wampanoag people is still very much felt today, on both a local and national level.
“The spirituality of indigenous people, even our governing structure, was something that eventually became mirrored by the founding fathers of this country,” Peters said indicating it flies in the face of the notion that native Americans were savage or barbaric peoples.
This theme of governance will be on display at Hanson’s new Wampanoag exhibit, called “Our” Story.
The name “Our Story” is due to the fact that the Wampanoag people had complete creative and editorial control over the exhibit. This is especially important given the somewhat checkered history that the Wampanoag tribe has had with local government, which Peters explained.
“Back in 1970, during Plymouth’s 350th anniversary, a Wampanoag man named Frank James was invited to speak at the ceremony,” she noted. “However, they looked over his speech and said ‘Oh, no, we don’t want you to say any of this stuff.’ This was because they talked about the Great Dying, kidnapping of native people and the injustices that were suffered. Rather than edit his remarks, he took his speech to Cole’s Hill in Plymouth. That day is now celebrated throughout the country as the National Day of Mourning.”
As dessert was being served, consisting of cake, pie, chocolate, and various fruits, Paula Peters took the stage.
She is a well-known leader in the Wampanoag community and former journalist for the Cape Cod Times. Her father Russell “Fast Turtle” Peters fought for the tribe’s federal recognition up until his death in 2003. The tribe’s federal recognition was gained in 2007.
During her speech, Peters asked the crowd about the history of famous Native American Squanto, and how much they knew about him. The room fell silent.
That, combined, with the number of questions she answered from the audience at the end spoke volumes about the educational importance of the event.
“The Wampanoag have been in this region for 13,000 years, so we feel a very strong affinity to this land. I felt a very strong affinity coming into Hanson today, it’s a beautiful place that I hadn’t ever seen before and is kind of preserved,” said Peters, adding jokingly “it’s a good thing nobody knows you’re here” as the audience responded with laughter.
As Peters was concluding her speech, she touched on some of the modern problems faced by native peoples including her own. Cultural appropriation is an issue, said Peters, referencing the NFL team the Washington Redskins. “Redskin” is widely considered a racial slur by many indigenous people, which made Peters ask, would a name like “Washington Jews” also be acceptable?
Some of her larger and more tangible concerns included securing and reclaiming all of her tribe’s land, recovering the native language, and the continued fight for greater federal recognition. “I’ve got all these things I’ve got to do. And I still have to circle back and worry about some ignorant people in the nation’s capital who think it’s okay to use a racial slur as a team name.”
The grand opening of the “Our” Story exhibit will be on Friday, August 2nd at the Nathaniel Thomas Mill, and the Hanson Historical Society will get a first look inside.
The exhibit, which is free of charge to all, will be open Tuesdays and Thursdays from 5 to 8 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.