TRURO — A new exhibition is being created at the Highland House Museum. Its purpose is to reframe the celebration of the 400th anniversary of the arrival of European settlers here, taking into account the history of the Wampanoag peoples.
While the Outer Cape awaits its opening, the federal government has taken its own approach to resituating Wampanoag history. In an afternoon phone call on March 27, the Dept. of the Interior informed Mashpee Wampanoag tribal leadership that their 320-acre reservation would be disestablished and taken out of federal trust.
David J. Silverman, a professor of native and colonial American history at George Washington University, told the Independent that the Mashpee Wampanoag have a connection to the Nauset people who inhabited the Outer Cape when the Mayflower arrived in 1620.
People of the First Light, Silverman said, lived in communities throughout the Cape.
“Over time, native people saw their land base diminish,” he said. “They were driven into debt by white creditors and courts, which have a long and terrible history throughout the 18th century, using their power to effectively force people to sell their land and even their children into servitude. Eventually, the only place left was Mashpee.”
State Sen. Julian Cyr of Truro told the Independent that the Interior Dept.’s action was “outrageous and unprecedented.” Because reservations are under the jurisdiction of the federal government, there is little that state legislators can do besides protest.
Still, Cyr is hoping to spur action in the senate through letters to Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt and U.S. senators Mitch McConnell and Charles Schumer. The letters have over 50 signers, including state Rep. Sarah Peake. “We’re circulating this letter in hopes of conveying our outrage,” Cyr said.
The letter also supports H.R.312, a bill filed by U.S. Rep. Bill Keating that passed the House last year. It would reaffirm the Wampanoag Tribe’s reservation as trust land and require that a suit filed against the tribe be dismissed. But it stalled in the Senate after the president tweeted about it, warning Republican senators not to vote in favor.
Keating told the Independent that the administration’s move was surprising, especially in the midst of a pandemic, when the tribe is focusing on health care. Keating said that lobbyists and advisers to the president have vested interests in preventing the Wampanoag from opening a casino in Taunton. The dissolution is “corrupt,” Keating said. “It’s despicable.”
If the land is taken out of trust, the tribe will not be able to legally operate the casino.
In a March 27 statement, Chair Cedric Cromwell said that the tribe hoped to prevent the loss of their land. “Today’s action was cruel and it was unnecessary,” he wrote.
On March 31, the tribe filed an emergency restraining order in U.S. District Court to prevent the Interior Dept.’s action. They now have 45 days to find a solution. The reservation is the site of health services, a language immersion school for children, and newly constructed homes.
Prof. Silverman said, “Trump himself has a decades-old vendetta against northeast Indians for cutting into his Atlantic earnings with Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun. He called them ‘fake Indians’ who got benefits that they didn’t deserve.”
The Highland House Museum’s exhibition, according to Director Lauren Kaufman, would seek to affirm the native people’s culture. The museum’s goal is to help visitors find out about the culture that had been here on Cape Cod for 12,000 years when the Mayflower landed.
“We hope to send the message,” Kaufman said, “that these people had established a successful life here long before the Pilgrims arrived.”
In Plymouth, George Garmany, governor general of the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, went further in an April 3 statement. “It is no exaggeration to state that the Pilgrims simply would never have survived without the help they received from those Wampanoag people,” the statement read. “All Americans, not just the millions who are descended from the Pilgrims, owe the Wampanoag people a debt of gratitude.”
The statement went on to request that the Interior Dept. reverse its decision.
Having land in trust is important for First Peoples to manage resources, police their community, and live in a way “that’s consistent with their values and interests,” Silverman said. “They have a right to govern their land and people.”
Cyr emphasized that acknowledging First Peoples’ sovereignty and history is a crucial part of their ongoing struggle.
“We’re part of a problematic history, and we’re not only descendants of that history, but our government is continuing to participate in it,” Cyr said.
In his statement, Cromwell wrote of the Wampanoag people’s resilience: “We have survived, we will continue to survive. These are our lands, these are the lands of our ancestors, and these will be the lands of our grandchildren…. We will not rest until we are treated equally with other federally recognized tribes and the status of our reservation is confirmed.”