Native Americans

Ancient Prejudice against “the Indians” Persists in Essex County Today

by Mary Ellen Lepionka, Gloucester, MA

As a researcher on the pre-Contact, Colonial, and Native histories of eastern Massachusetts, Cape Ann in particular, I’ve grown accustomed to finding anti-Native American sentiments in much of the primary source material I’ve reviewed by English observers. By the 1670s the New England settlers had come to see the Indians as indolent, mischievous heathens with more land than they knew what to do with. By the 1680s, King Philip’s War had made the Wampanoag and their allies enemies of the English. Acrimony extended to all “Indians”, even neutrals, including the Pawtucket living in Essex County and their Pennacook and Nipmuc relations.

Atrocities experienced by both sides in that war often were a result of cultural misunderstanding or ignorance of the rules of engagement. Algonquians expected warfare to be conducted only by career warriors in naked face-to-face confrontation on neutral display grounds, never in a village. Except for groups capturing brides, hostages, or corn in raids, civilians were not to be involved. War chieftains for the most part operated independently of sagamores and sachems responsible for village life and homelands. Warfare was not for territory or supremacy but for spiritual wholeness. It was based on the principle of blood vengeance, the righting of wrongs, even if a correction to restore balance took generations. The object was to right wrongs while killing as few people as possible, because every killing automatically spiritually endangered the killer and his family. That was because every death by violence had to be avenged by the victim’s family in order for his spirit to ascend to the sky world. Battles traditionally consisted mostly of confrontational displays of prowess, hand-to-hand combat with a few woundings, and the torture of a captive, intended to serve as a disincentive to warfare. High-ranking individuals–those with stronger manitou—spiritual power—were most at risk of getting killed. Everything changed when pitched displays became ambushes, and spears were replaced by guns.

Indian attacks on English settlements on the frontiers initially reflected traditional Algonquian aims. Warriors first killed the livestock and set fire to the fields, and then killed a few people, usually everyone in one targeted family that they felt had directly wronged them, and then they took as many hostages as possible with a view to either ransoming them or adopting them into their band. Bands adopted hostages, especially children and youths, as a way to replenish their populations, which were constantly being depleted because of the demands of the cycle of vengeance, as well as the depredations of virgin soil epidemics. Band exogamy, making potential enemies allies and family members through arranged marriages, was a way to reduce the need for warfare. To the English, of course, the killing of their cows and other “dumb beasts”—their property—and the taking of women and children as hostages was not perceived as merciful but as cowardly, and an even greater atrocity.

After King Philip’s War, Native people were indiscriminately, inconsistently, and periodically hunted for scalp bounties, executed, sold into slavery, indentured to towns, disarmed and confined to reservations, and/or forcibly assimilated. That was only the beginning of what was done to them over next 400 years. By the 1690s, Native people were among the accused in the witchcraft “hysteria”, if that’s what it was. They were demonized because of their traditional beliefs in magical spirits and practice of sorcery, and some were burned at the stake as witches. By the 1700s, at least one map and ad for potential new colonists to New England boasted that the land had been “Cleared of Indians” as far as the Connecticut River. Then by the 1800s, Native Americans were treated as indigent wards of the state, drains on the national economy, and impediments to the coast-to-coast nation building mandated by the country’s doctrine of manifest destiny.

By the 1900s our romantic notions about the tragically heroic vanishing Indian in harmony with nature came to us from late 19th century mythologizing, along with the whitewashing of America’s role in exterminating Native people and disenfranchising and marginalizing their surviving descendants. Otherwise their memory and place in New England history has been largely erased. Today, beneath broad acceptance of Indian rights and benign admiration for aspects of Native culture (especially the “kitsch” and New Age appropriations), lies inherited hostility toward Native people. Unrecognized, it has gone unchallenged, but locally I have found it evident in these six ways:

  1. People attending my presentations have been surprised to learn of Native presence and mistreatment during the Colonial Period.
  2. Town archives lack information about them and discredit surviving accounts of them.
  3. Present-day attitudes reflect earlier Eurocentric and racist sentiments.
  4. Misunderstood deed transactions vilify “the Indians” as extortionists.
  5. School curricula omit, misidentify, stereotype, and romanticize them.
  6. The state officially denies Native agency in present-day surface features.

1. Surprise and Dismay

In my dozens of slide presentations at historical associations, museums, libraries, civic organizations, classrooms, town halls, churches, and interest groups throughout Essex County, I have learned that audiences typically expected to hear about Native American life prior to the Contact Period. They did not expect to hear that indigenous people were still living here at the time of English settlement and became subject to enslavement. Audiences had been told that on the New England coastal plain the Indians had all died out, eloped, or otherwise disappeared before English settlers arrived. This belief is so widespread, and so contrary to documentary evidence, that it can only be understood as a legacy of some early official, or state-sponsored, conspiracy to suppress the truth.

During Q&A at the end of my presentations, after hearing how badly intercultural relations deteriorated after the first 40 years, attendees sometimes tried to assert that the Indians had all died of smallpox, that colonists married Indians and so could not have been mistreating them, or that the Indians had become a menace, committing heinous massacres. Other audience members, silent, clearly showed feelings of disbelief, outrage, discomfort, or sadness. In response I have always carefully explained how and why the waves of virgin soil epidemics reduced but did not eradicate Native populations; that the French may have married Native women, but the English in New England did not, especially the Puritans, at least not until the late nineteenth century; and that it was the English who committed massacres, sanctioning the scalping of men, women, and children for bounties.

Indian raids in New England involved targeted or token killings with lots of property damage and aggressive hostage taking. Both sides committed atrocities. Algonquian warriors traditionally scalped only enemy warriors they had killed in battle. The purpose was to acquire and possess the man’s inherent spiritual power, or manitou, through contagious magic, by handling his hair and displaying his scalplock as a trophy of war. English bounty hunters, including Andrew Robinson of Gloucester, were doing something else entirely—enriching themselves while getting revenge for Abenaki attacks on Gloucester fishing vessels in the Gulf of Maine.

People in my audiences had never heard of any of these things.

2. Politics of the Archives

In every town and city archives and local library I visited while conducting research, I was told that very little, if anything, was known about Native Americans there. Vertical file folders contained mostly magazine articles with incorrect information and photocopied excerpts, often slanderous, from biased secondary sources. Vital statistics, tax registers, and censuses in most towns do not identify Native Americans. In Gloucester, vital records identified only one Indian, a slave whose baptism was recorded. One early census I saw–in which someone had penciled in “Indian” after some of the typescript names—I was told could not be found when I requested to see it again. Archivists and librarians told me confidently that there were no Indians on Cape Ann when the English settled, that in any case they were only nomads and never lived here. It was allowed that, since stone artifacts have been found, they must have come here from time to time, filtering down through the woods in the summertimes to fish or hunt deer.

The message was clear. Native presence was to be regarded as insignificant, unimportant, to be discounted. I found that no local museum had Native artifacts on display. Large, rich collections dating from Paleo-Indian times to the eighteenth century were packed away in museum basements or arranged indiscriminately in back rooms on bookshelves along with seashells. I was told there was a problem with provenance, provenience, and identification—who donated the artifacts, where they came from, and what they were—as if this disqualified them from further research and exhibition. After I researched their Phillips Collection, the Cape Ann Museum (CAM) briefly mounted a framed wall display of a few Archaic Period artifacts I had identified for them. I was a trustee of the Massachusetts Archaeological Society at the time and published an article on Phillips and his collection in the MAS Bulletin. This display was soon taken down. The Native artifacts from Cape Ann and vicinity are not included in CAM’s list of collections and are not mentioned anywhere on CAM’s web site. At the Ipswich Museum, crates of archaeologically significant lithic artifacts were reluctantly dragged out of storage and treated dismissively. Even at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, collections are hidden away and not available to the public for viewing without special permission. The message was that 10,000 years or more of indigenous life here was not important, not anything to know about, much less celebrate.

Ethnohistorical and archaeological evidence proves conclusively that Native people were living on Cape Ann and throughout Essex County before, during, and after English settlement. They had agricultural villages both inland and on the shore and maintained a mixed economy of hunting and gathering, fishing, cultivating crops, and clamming. Nevertheless, none of the early histories of the towns refer to them beyond fears of attack and discoveries of their shell heaps, tool caches, and burials. The few primary source accounts that do refer to Native inhabitants were presented to me as suspect, to be taken with a grain of salt, as if the observers were not to be trusted as sources of information. This included John Dunton from London via Ipswich, who wrote about his visit to the Indian village of Wonasquam in Riverview, Gloucester, in 1686.

Dunton’s account is presented as a possible forgery, based on the similarity between his description of an Algonquian funeral and Roger Williams’ description of an Algonquian funeral in Rhode Island from 50 years before—as if two descriptions of the same ritual might not be similar! And as if the London bookseller had some ulterior motive in describing a nonexistent Native village! Dunton observed that the Indians at Wonasquam were in mourning for the death of a very important man. Without him, they were preparing to leave their town for good. That person likely was Daniel Gookin, who died that year. As the first Indian Agent for Massachusetts, he had championed indigenous people and often interceded on their behalf, beseeching both the Mass. Bay Colony General Court and the British Crown to protect them from the settlers. Gookin was unpopular with settlers, but his death was deeply mourned by Native people throughout New England.

Also to be taken with a grain of salt was Ebenezer Pool’s recording of his grandfather’s 1823 recollections of the Indian village in Riverview known as Wonasquam, which swelled to 20 or 30 wigwams every summer—Pool was an eccentric, I was told. So was Joseph Felt, allegedly, whose history of Salem gives an account of the “Town of Wigwams” that was Naumkeag. The early twentieth century affidavits of Charlotte Lane and Manton Merchant about Indians in Annisquam and the Annisquam River islands were presented as quaint folk history. The Native people they describe were to be seen as mere transients, selling baskets and brooms and herbal remedies dock to dock, rather than as descendants attempting to reconnect with traditional homelands. Newspaper society pages chronicle annual summer visits of Native groups to their traditional sites on Cape Ann well into the early twentieth century. They came to Curtis Cove and Rust Island in Riverview, Bent’s Pasture and Babson’s Pasture in Annisquam, Smith Cove at Rocky Neck, Sayward St. on the Inner Harbor and Little Good Harbor, and to Pigeon Cove and Andrews Point in Rockport.

Local archives are silent on the existence, resilience, and persistence of indigenous people here.

3. Present-Day Prejudice

In Gloucester’s Great Fire of 1830, visiting Native people from Indian Island in Maine helped the fishermen’s wives put out the flames, passing leather buckets in a water brigade. Many of Gloucester’s men were away fishing on the Grand Banks at the time. According to the Gloucester Telegraph, Instead of being thanked the Indians were accused of starting the fire in the first place, in order to be seen helping to put it out, in order to get into the town’s good graces! The article asserts that “Indians have rights,” but that was also the year that Congress passed President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act, in which all Native people were to be forcibly relocated to lands west of the Mississippi River. Many Native people from Massachusetts ended up with Mahicans on the Stockbridge-Munsee Reservation in Wisconsin, and their descendants are there today.

One expects prejudice in such defined historical contexts, but I was surprised to discover entrenched, latent, Eurocentric, negative judgments and racial stereotypes of Native people here today in “enlightened” New England. It is expressed in subtle ways—people often don’t even realize they harbor these prejudicial views! For example, the two-day Tolba Menahan Intertribal Powwow held every August in Gloucester was held for the last time after only one day in 2012. Neighbors had complained that the drumming was too loud and went on too long into the night. (Drumming represents communal communication with the Great Spirit. A Native participant later told me that more intense drumming is needed in places where there is a greater spiritual imbalance to be corrected!)

When I suggested in 2017 that the city host a powwow to bring Native people back into the community, I was told that the Indians would have to apply and pay for the event as entertainment and pay to park. They would not be allowed to park campers, however, or to camp in Stage Fort Park. If coming from a distance they would just have to pay for lodging. They would not be allowed to charge an admission fee or solicit donations. And they would not be allowed to sell foods or arts and crafts unless they qualified and paid for vendors’ licenses. Any drumming would have to end by 9. I saw no recognition at City Hall of how unwelcoming all that was, and I found no interest in seeking Cultural Council or other grants for the purpose.

About powwows I heard people casually complain that they are not authentic and that participants don’t even look like Indians. Ideas of authenticity appear to be based on stereotypes of Plains Indian culture and distaste for some dancers’ more gaudy regalia. Critics seem to be ignorant of the wholesale losses of Native culture and remixing of diverse cultural traditions necessitated by 400 years of dislocation and forced relocation without reference to the cultural integrity of specific groups. Human groups continually remake themselves in adaptation to their histories and are no less “authentic” for doing so at any point in the process. Ideas of what Indians should look like reflect racial profiling–the Indian head nickel. People seem to be ignorant of the fact that many Native Americans in New England are people of color, from when their ancestors were enslaved with Africans and later treated as ex-slaves, while many others are white, from when their ancestors were raped or married into Anglo- or Franco-European families.

I also heard complaints about gambling and casinos, as if Native Americans were contributing to vice, and about land grabs, as if Native Americans were not entitled to reclaim some land grabbed from them or at least to have some of their sacred landscapes protected from development. Critics seem ignorant of the fact that gambling was a traditional Algonquian recreation and pastime. Men, women, and children participated almost daily in strategic wagering games, simply for the satisfaction of being right. Clay “poker” chips and stone gaming pieces are common in archaeological sites throughout the Woodland Period, beginning as early as 3,500 years ago. It’s what they did! Using institutionalized gaming as a means of funding tribal life was a brilliant strategy for avoiding total loss of culture through forced assimilation. Were groups wanting to live traditionally supposed to make a living selling corn husk dolls, deer skins, and tomahawk replicas at trading posts forever?

In one of my slide presentations, Annisquam residents were not happy to learn that the northern slope of their peninsula was a Pawtucket burial ground. A dozen skeletons had been exhumed in the 1940s and other graves built over. One homeowner told me he did not notify authorities of an Indian burial discovered recently during construction of his new addition. “Next thing you know they’ll want to build a casino there and I’ll lose my property,” he said. Ignorance of the law—what it does and does not protect—is common. At worst that homeowner would have been asked to allow a professional archaeologist to document the find and repatriate the bones to the state’s tribal council for reburial elsewhere before the site was destroyed. Contractors have been known to not report potentially historically significant sites or archaeological finds to avoid work delays. In these cases it is clear what is important and what is not and why.

Once when Chief Cheryl Toney Holley of the Hassanamisco Nipmuc of Grafton and I were preparing our back-to-back slide lectures at the Cape Ann Museum, where we had been invited to speak, the event organizer did not understand why something she said was offensive (to us both). “I guess we better get started,” she said. “The natives are restless.” That is what colonizers said when fearing an attack, often justifying a preemptive strike. Fear of attack was the most, or only, salient thing to know about indigenous people. (The organizer was astonished to learn the source and understand the meaning of her gaffe and apologized.) Writing in 2020, a year of national trauma on many levels, we see some recognition of why indigenous people may be offended by sports team names that derogate them, caricaturize them, or appropriate their sacred symbols.

Ancient prejudices against indigenous people seem to persist mindlessly on a cellular level.

4. The Indian “Shakedown”

One of the most pervasive sources of present-day prejudice is false stories about the Indian deeds to Essex County’s towns. The idea that Pawtucket descendants took advantage of towns by seeking payments for a second round of deeds—double dipping—even cropped up in a draft of a Cape Ann Museum catalog raisonné for a 2018 exhibit, “Unfolding Histories: Gloucester Before 1900”, in which I had been invited to participate. Fortunately I had a chance to correct their piece before it was published. In reality, the first deeds by Masconomet and other sagamores and sachems of the 1630s and 1640s were either for specific acreages to this or that early settler for his farm, or for vast areas, such as all of Agawam, which stretched from above the Merrimack River to Salem Harbor. This was before there were any towns. The second and third rounds of Indians deeds in Essex County were for the new townships as they were created.

At no time did the need for colonists’ clear title to their towns originate with the Indians. It was first dictated by the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which made the buying and selling of Indian land illegal without its permission. The Puritans insisted that Indians be paid so as to avoid showing “the least scruple of intrusion.” Then, after the Massachusetts Bay Colony charter was vacated in 1694, King James II created the Dominion of Massachusetts and New York and sent a royal governor (who didn’t last long). All land was deemed the property of the English Crown except any land claimed by Native people. Towns scrambled to gain clear legal title to the land within their borders by negotiating the purchase of quitclaim deeds from the children or grandchildren of the original Native signers. Masconomet’s grandchildren–Samuel English, John Umpee, and others—initially accepted the pro bono assistance of white lawyers to make claims. These lawyers soon took percentages from the token purchase prices as middlemen. The Pawtucket eventually dropped this help and completed the process themselves, as old towns were divided up to make new towns that also wanted their own quitclaim deeds. The deeds—most of the ones for Essex County are in the Salem Registry of Deeds—were had for bare fractions of what the properties were actually worth, even for those times—between 2 and 20 pounds sterling, often for thousands of acres. Each town paid for its deed by taxing residents or selling land. Marshall Swan, a Harvard Ph.D. and Rockport resident, seeking publication of his article on this subject in 1981, referred to it as “the great Indian shakedown.”

Swan’s article clearly reveals the racism and hostility embedded in the collective memory of colonial descendants in southern New England. Swan had written a “history” of Rockport called Town on Sandy Bay, and his shakedown article and related correspondence are in the Sandy Bay Historical Society. In his letter to the editor of the Historical Journal of Massachusetts, he wrote:

Beginning about 1680…, many individuals and also communities feared for their land titles….Indians were hastily brought into the picture and paid off for documentary help. Then about 1700, two “enterprising” whites saw the opportunity for a real shake-down. They became lawyers for some surviving Indians and before they were done squeezed a dozen Massachusetts towns for “clear titles.” Eventually, the Indians decided they’d figured out the system by themselves and dropped their white “bag men,” collecting the whole pay off for their own benefit….If this all sounds like the recent Indian settlement for Maine lands and their attempts at Mashapee, or like the ayatollahs in Iran when their cabinet minister was captured by the Iraqis, and like the two Godfather films just rerun, that is just the way it strikes me….

Swan’s article, based on a lecture he gave, was ultimately featured in The Essex Genealogist in 1983 (Volume 3, Number 3, pp. 106-117). His first paragraph ends with the following observation:

“[B]etween the 1680s and the turn of the century, in Essex county alone, at least a dozen towns were gouged and quickly caved in. There were ‘rip-offs’ aplenty – that’s indisputable. Not so clear is who ripped off whom. Of particular interest were the belated payoffs exacted about 1700 by an Indian family named English and their New English ‘attorneys.’ It is that “shake-down”…that I would like to talk with you about today.”

Swan goes on to repeat the colonial rationalization for taking land–that the Bible says Christians have a divine right to earth that is not being used or improved. He refers to the Indians as “absentee landlords”, makes fun of their names (“strange names for Indians”) and their addresses (the residence of George Nonose “was airily given as sometimes of Rumney Marsh, sometimes at or about Chelmsford, sometimes here, sometimes there, but deceased”), and questions the truth of descendants’ genealogical ties to the sagamores and sachems of the seventeenth century. Swan’s bit about addresses shows his ignorance of Pawtucket seasonal migration between Wamesit at Chelmsford and the shore, in this case Revere Beach.

Swan’s language is derogatory throughout:

James Rumney Marsh “wrangled the right” to sell Marblehead. In 1864 he was “able to start moving on Marbleheaders”.

The presence of Joseph English, grandson of Masconomet, “was the first appearance of that Indian family who were to become real thorns in the side of Essex County people.”

On October 13, 1686, the Selectmen [of Beverly] welcomed the acquisition of an Indian title for which they paid six pounds, six shillings and eightpence. The vendors were three grandchildren of Masconomet. The two males carried somewhat strange names for Indians; one was Joseph English and the other was Samuel English, and their sister was named Betty. She was the wife of Jeremiah Wauches. Their once-powerful grandfather had…engaged in numerous land conveyances in the Agawam territory. Masconomet himself had once had an extensive jurisdiction but he lived to know what it meant to “see the mighty fallen.”

Swan’s bit about Masconomet is in ignorance of the fact that he was hardly mighty, and never a threat—the Pawtucket having remained steadfastly neutral. Masconomet was subordinate to and paid tribute to the heads of another lineage (Nanopashemet’s), and after his “conveyances” he had to petition the General Court to be allowed to retain a few acres to grow enough corn to keep himself and his wife alive.

Swan goes on to question the veracity of colonial testimony stating that Masconomet “gladly welcomed the colonists and made them a free grant of this entire territory.” It all depends on whose story you read, doesn’t it?,” he says. Meanwhile, “the Indians named English…swept across Essex County—nine towns in as many as nine months”—as if providing quitclaim deeds were replays of the Deerfield Massacre! Swan then reports that towns reimbursed innkeepers for entertainment “expenses on the Indians,” aka “the whiskey allowance.”

“Following Beverly’s settlement, several weeks passed and then Bradford got fingered. (And to an historian today, or for someone who’s read The Godfather, you almost feel as it if is Mafia treatment.) Beverly had been a sitting duck, but Bradford was quite another matter….A bare fortnight elapsed after the negotiations of Manchester’s Indian title before Newbury, Rowley and Gloucester were put on the spot.”

[Afterwards] “At least Gloucester was out from under. Boxford bowed next on January 15, 1701.”

Swan says that the Indians came to Gloucester only in summers—repeating an ancient untruth. He remarks that only one of Masconomet’s grandchildren alone negotiated the last deeds and insinuates that Samuel English was cutting out both the lawyers and his relatives in order to pocket the whole amount of the payments.

“The title-squeeze business was now about rung out. But the Indian, Samuel English, had belatedly got the hang of what was going on. When he signed off on the Bradford deed…neither [lawyer] had yet shown up….It is nice to see that, slow as they were, the Indians finally caught on to what the pale-faces were doing as they led them around and up the garden path through at least the jungles of Essex County.”

In addition to being egregiously insulting, Swan was clearly ignorant of the Pawtucket kinship system and way of life and the fact that they had to keep their exposure to Europeans to a minimum. Some of Samuel English’s kin may have died in the smallpox outbreak of the late 1690s. If Samuel was acting alone, he was probably protecting the English, Umpee, and Wauches families from risk of infection, in addition to refusing further exploitation by their white “helpers”. Swans ends his article with “hopes that at least their titles to their inheritance in the happy hunting grounds remain inviolate.”

This is not history. It is a twisted construction from the mind of someone who received and never questioned a deeply entrenched legacy of racist beliefs, clearly revealed in the language.

5. Curricular Misfeasance

In one of my grandchildren’s second-grade classrooms, where I had been invited to speak, I listened to a teacher explain how the colonists had “spoiled things” for the Indians in New England. They had “spoiled their corn,” for example, which is “why Indian corn is all different colors” with red and blue as well as yellow and white kernels, making it “not good to eat.” She held up a Thanksgiving door decoration made with dried ears of Indian corn. “That wasn’t very nice, was it?” she said. This sort of story is how some Gloucester children learned that the colonists were not nice to the Indians and that “Indian” things are inferior. I was supposed to talk about the real meaning of dreamcatchers. With her students there, how could I possibly explain how wrong she was—how corn is wind fertilized and naturally multicolored and it’s the colonists who “spoiled” it for themselves by selecting only white and yellow corn and segregating fields to prevent cross-pollination—how all the kernels of any color are edible and have equal nutritional value, though some are better green and others as flour, but the colonists preferred their barley flour to corn meal—how drying corn does not make it inedible but preserves it for later consumption or for grinding in flour mills.

That was only the first time I had to reeducate my grandchildren on what they learned about Indians in grade school. They never heard about the Pawtucket, Pennacook, Nipmuc, Penobscot, or Abenaki people of Essex County and northern Middlesex County in Massachusetts and in southern New Hampshire and Maine, only about the Wampanoag and other Massachuset south of Boston, who were presented as emblematic of New England. The students heard stories about Plymouth and Massasoit, not about Agawam and Masconomet, nor about indigenous groups in the western part of the state such as the Mahican and Pocumtuc. The children did not hear their names, nor the names of the Connecticut and Rhode Island people who figured so prominently in Massachusetts history, such as the Pequot and Narraganset.

The focus on Wampanoag had as counterpoint only the “Mohawk”, Sioux, and Navajo with no understanding that these represented four mutually unintelligible language families– Algonquian, Iroquoian, Siouan, and Athabascan. Such concepts are not beyond the grasp of K-8 students. They were taught to fabricate Wampanoag wetus, Iroquois long houses, long Lakota eagle-feathered headdresses, and kachina dolls, distilling indigenous cultures into a monolithic “other”. I never said, but even present-day Wampanoag (who claim that wetu is the correct name for their domed huts) might be interested to know that wetu originally referred to the segregation hut where girls and women lived during their menstrual periods. Wigwam is the more inclusive Algonquian word for “house.”

I was a guest in my grandchildren’s classrooms to show how wigwams and wampum belts were made and to tell stories about Gluskap the Abenaki culture hero and the Algonquian names for months in their lunar calendars. In their thank you notes the boys drew pictures of feathered warriors with blood-dripping tomahawks and Gluskap as a menacing giant atop Mount Katahdin. The girls drew pictures of girls in beaded deerskin dresses with cradleboards, wigwams, and corn. (It is ever thus, whether socialized or inborn.)

Indigenous cultures are not in the public high school curriculum in Massachusetts. In local public secondary schools I was not invited back after my slide presentations on my researches into the indigenous people of Essex County and Cape Ann. The teachers had never heard of the Pawtucket or other Indians on Cape Ann and did not know about the impacts of King Philip’s War and thus perhaps doubted the truth or accuracy of what I was saying, however carefully I filtered it for younger audiences. I was welcomed back at private schools, however, for my slide presentations on archaeology and local indigenous history. Some of the teachers at those schools believed it was important for students to know that indigenous people were here, had survived efforts to exterminate or enslave or forget them, and had living descendants today. This is only one context, I think, in which public schools do not—perhaps cannot—provide equal educational opportunity.

Even the state’s Commonwealth Museum in Boston, designed for student tours, suppresses or misrepresents indigenous history and its place in New England’s history. The exhibit does not identify all the indigenous people of Massachusetts and mentions them in only four contexts:

  1. A pre-Contact panel with three poor examples of stone artifacts from an Early Woodland archaeological site in Boston Bay and text emphasizing how primitive they were.
  2. Documents pertaining to the Oath of 1644, in which the Pawtucket and others officially placed themselves under English “protection”, and to legislation of 1661 creating “Praying Indian” villages on the frontiers for Christian converts.
  3. Documents relating to King Philip’s War (1675-1676), including the internment of Native people on Deer Island and the hanging of two white men for killing Indian women and children.
  4. Documents pertaining to the sovereignty and recognition of Wampanoag people, such as the Mashpee petition for independence in 1760 (ultimately granted in 1834 and only just reaffirmed in 2020 after a legal challenge).

But what happened with indigenous people in the 24 years between English Contact and the oath of submission? There is no mention of the Pequot War in which Massachusett Bay colonists and their Indian allies destroyed the Pequot and sold the survivors into slavery. What happened in the 84 years between King Philip’s War and 1760? There is no mention of how in 1688 Massachusetts issued its first scalp bounties, a practice that ended only after the Revolutionary War. Massachusetts started paying for the scalps of Indian men, women, and children just a few years after hanging a couple of colonists for the same thing as a war crime! Indian scalps were hung in the rafters of their courthouses for display.

And what happened in the 74 years between 1760 and Mashpee’s successful bid for independence in 1834? There is no mention of the confinement of indigenous people on reservations, their impoverishment and forced assimilation, their escapes to upstate New York and Odanak in Canada and their later exile to Wisconsin, or the failed efforts of the descendants of survivors to be given legal recognition as indigenous groups. To this day the only federally recognized groups in Massachusetts are branches of the Wampanoag. The state additionally recognizes the “Nipmuc Nation” (originally including both the Dudley and Grafton branches of Nipmuc, although they have since fallen out, mainly because they represent competing lineages.)

There are Pawtucket descendants today, but no people self-identify as Pawtucket. Efforts at displacement, extermination, assimilation, and exile were successful in Essex County. If there were Pawtucket communities today, they would not receive state or federal recognition because they were bands and not tribes or nations, and they would not have proof of their direct genealogical ties to Native ancestors. These rules for state and federal recognition are based on cultural ignorance and racial prejudice, including criteria from early twentieth-century scientific racism about racial purity.

The concepts of clan, tribe, nation, and sovereignty are European in origin. These concepts did not exist in North America, but the designations were imposed upon and accepted by Native groups following European contact. (Most Native people do not know this.) The Algonquians in New England defined themselves as “the people” of an ancestor and a place. They traditionally identified themselves by descent within a lineage, by membership in a band, and by roots in a homeland or the site of a principal village. A band—as a voluntary association of related and unrelated people living in a place and working together for common purposes—does not qualify as a “tribe” or “nation” according to state and federal governments and so is not recognized. To me this hardly seems fair. Any group self-identifying as indigenous, reckoning their descent from indigenous people, and living as an indigenous community—at any level of political complexity—should have the basic respect of official recognition.

The only indigenous individuals identified by name in the Commonwealth Museum are the signers of the Oath of 1644, James Printer (Nipmuc writer and printer), and the Mashpee petitioners of 1760 (Quock Walker and Reuben Cognehew). There is also no mention of indigenous cultural contributions to New England or the American system of government. Caucus is an Algonquian word. Federalism was a Native American concept and form of governance. The existence of federated independent polities (bands or tribes or states or nations) with equal representation and majority rule by vote had no precedent in European history. Benjamin Franklin’s proposed design for America’s first paper currency showed, in addition to the Masonic pyramid with eye—still seen on one-dollar bills today—an Iroquoian covenant chain in a ring around a sacred council fire. This is an indigenous symbol of federalism: independent bands/tribes/states/nations linked together in mutual cooperation around a central higher moral authority.

Our educational system remains negligent, or at least deficient, on the subject of local indigenous peoples and their histories.

6. Denial of Native Agency

I doubt the Commonwealth Museum exhibit will ever be properly decolonized, such is the state’s denial and erasure of the real history of colonization here. That erasure is so deep-seated and complete that the state even officially denies the existence of above-ground signs of Native habitation. With the exception of rock shelters that colonists identified as Indian refuges of last resort, all earthworks and stoneworks and modified landscapes are declared to be the work of colonists or natural geological forces. I was never able to persuade state archaeologists to even visit prospective Native landscapes and surface features on Cape Ann, much less give them site numbers for the archaeological database and the possibility of preserving them as cultural heritage. I was told they might consider coming if I found petroglyphs or artifacts. But they did not find the photos I sent convincing enough to warrant a trip.

As a policy, to date the Massachusetts Historical Commission (MHC), State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), and Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) do not officially recognize Native solar observatories or ceremonial stone landscapes (CSLs) in Massachusetts. This despite the fact that Algonquians clearly were skywatchers, along with all the other peoples of the ancient world world-wide. In 2008 the preservation of a historically significant Native landscape at Turner’s Falls and its listing in the National Register of Historic Places came about only through federal intervention. The DCR’s publication Terra Firma: Putting Historic Landscape Preservation on Solid Ground, in its section on “Debunking Myths”, claims “there is no archaeological evidence for Native agency in stone features or landscapes.” A recent study shows that Massachusetts has the most extreme policy of all 50 states in this regard.

The SHPO website asserts that researches into above-ground stone structures “have invariably shown that they are not associated with Native American settlement of Massachusetts.” This is simply not true. There are petroglyphs here, as in most other states, as well as glacial erratics that have been cleaved, moved, quarried, or inscribed for practical, ceremonial, or astronomical use. The Algonquians in Essex County built causeways and other earthworks, erected cairns and walls and other stoneworks, established sightlines for observing the cycles of the moon and stars, dug canals, diverted streams, made stone weirs in rivers, managed communities of plants, deforested large areas, and planted in rows of mounds that still exist here and there. The history of their impressions upon the surface of the land over more than 10,000 years of occupancy can still be seen here today.

Denial of Native agency in present-day landscape features in Massachusetts is an establishment view of long standing, and it is more political (and prejudicial) than it is empirical (or logical).

To conclude this long lament, in summary, these are the six ways I have learned about the persistence of ancient, subtle (and not so subtle) prejudices against indigenous people, ignorance of their history, and insensitivity to their concerns about recognition, respect, representation, land rights, and environmental sustainability. I don’t know what can be done about it all except to raise awareness and hope for real change in this time of public concern about social justice. It is past time for a paradigm shift to actually happen.

Articles by Mary Ellen Lepionka:

Categories: Native Americans

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5 replies »

  1. Fantastic summary of local and regional historical institutions. However, this process is not unique to New England. Indigenous culture is minimized or eliminated from the historical narrative as the march of Progress continues west.

    Like

  2. I must say, Ms. Lepionka, this is the most impressive article I have read to date on the plight of the Native American peoples in our country’s earliest recorded (by word, anyway) history. I am in the process of writing a novel about the discovery of historical bones on the Great Marsh in Ipswich and the dilemmas it poses. My research has been validated by what you have written. My only dream would be for someone such as yourself to review my novel for accuracy before I submit it for publication!

    One other note: Although I have seen a few references to “Indians” being accused of witchcraft, I cannot find any real specifics on that. And, although, accused Colonial “witches” were hanged, I did not know that accused “Indians” were burned at the stake.

    Again, thank you for bringing to light that prejudices existed and still do, regarding our Native American fellow citizens.

    Like

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