This past Friday I drove up to Mashpee to visit my friends from that tribe and to give a talk at the Mashpee Public Library on the Indian Mariners Project. Once I arrived in Mashpee, I stopped by the Mashpee Wampanoag Indian Museum to deliver a toggle harpoon (made by Bill Sheer of Mystic Seaport) for their new exhibit on Indian whalers. The museum committee did a wonderful job assembling information and materials on their whaling ancestors that will certainly inform the public about Mashpee history and culture and, for me, will help guide some of my future work for the Indian Mariners Project. A portion of the exhibit also included an iPad audio selections of a conversation between Ramona Peters and I that we had recorded last month when she visited me at the Pequot Museum (during Mohegan Wigwam festival).
From the Museum, I went to my friend Jessie Little Doe Baird’s house for a lobster mac and cheese lunch with her and Trish Keli’inui (Mashpee Tribal Councilor). I had just met Trish a few weeks ago at Schemitzun powwow and we became fast friends. Jessie had obligations with the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project (she is founder and director, and a MacArthur Foundation Genius award recipient…and Mashpee Tribal Council Vice Chairwoman), so Trish showed me around a bit. We helped the Museum committee set up for my talk and then she took me to the Old Indian Meeting House – a place where Rev. Wiliam Apes (Pequot), Blind Joe Amos (Mashpee), and others preached many years ago on behalf of Indian civil rights. We ran into Anita “Mother Bear” Peters (Ramona’s sister) and her grandson and I got the grand tour of the facility and of Anita’s handiwork. Trish made sure to bring me upstairs and show me some of the “graffiti” etchings of schooners and sloops that Mashpee kids made long ago.
My talk was well attended by the public and by many members of the Mashpee tribe. Afterwards, I was gifted a beautiful wampum necklace in the shape of a whale tail by the Museum committee. Chief Earl Mills, with whom I have enjoyed a number of conversations over the past few years, presented me with his most recent book, “Talking with the Elders of Mashpee: Memories of Earl H. Mills, Sr.” As I browse through his book now, I am struck by the extraordinary amount of information on Mashpee maritime traditions. My blog readers should expect to see some of this material in the future. Trish and I later met up with Bobby Foster (Mashpee Tribal Councilor), Francie Dottin, and David Weeden and took a tour of their new government building (scheduled for completion in November). At Chief Mills suggestion, my hosts brought me to the Raw Bar for an amazing seafood dinner – Wamp style!
On Saturday, I drove to Woods Hole and hopped on the Steamship Authority freight ferry to Martha’s Vineyard. I was greeted by Tobias Vanderhoop who brought me to the Aquinnah Cultural Center where I would be presenting my research. As we drove down island, I was reminded that the last time I had been to Martha’s Vineyard was 12 years ago when I first met Tobias, then a tribal councilor for the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah). We arrived at the cultural center and I was greeted by Linda Coombs, also a member of the tribe and one of the founding members of the Wampanoag Indian Program at Plimouth Plantation where she was employed for 30 years. The Cultural Center is located in the Edwin Vanderhoop homestead overlooking nearby beaches and the Atlantic Ocean near the Gay Head cliffs. For those not familiar with this area, Gay Head is the name for the multi-colored clay cliffs located at the southwestern end of the Vineyard. They are significant to the Wampanoag (see my blog on Moshup, Whales, and Wampanoag Maritime Narratives) and have been identified as a National Natural Landmark.
I did not have much time on the island, but was able to explore the Vanderhoop homestead and find many signs of Aquinnah maritime heritage including the whale vertebra at the home’s entrance, foreign coins, tapa bark cloth, a list of whale men from the Island, and a try pot just outside.
On my way home, I stopped by Bernadine Pocknett’s house. She had made some snapping turtle soup for me. It is one of my Mashpee favorites – and something I look forward to every year during powwow season from her daughter, Sherry Pocknett, at Sly Fox’s Den.
To date, most of the Indian Mariners Project has focused on the Customs District of New London, Connecticut. This visit has reawakened me to Mashpee and Aquinnah and the richness of their maritime heritage. My friends there remind me how important the estuaries, coastal waters, and ocean are to them every day. As Chief Mills said in a note to me, “my ancestors were a gentle people, and the presence of the sea, in particular ‘the tidal shore,’ presented the best opportunity to eat, settle, increase, and learn.” I look forward to spending much more time with my Wampanoag friends, sharing histories, and digging into the customs records and other maritime documents in New Bedford, Fairhaven, and Nantucket.