PROVINCETOWN — This year marks the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ landing in Provincetown and the first encounters between the newly arrived Europeans and the indigenous people who lived here. But narratives of this history have often been laced with racism, focused solely on the Pilgrims’ point of view.
Steven Peters and his mother, Paula Peters, co-owners of SmokeSygnals, a Wampanoag creative agency based in Mashpee, helped design a new exhibit about first encounters for the Provincetown Museum. They have noted an increased willingness to adopt a more nuanced understanding of the Pilgrim story, even if that story is sometimes ugly.
“We don’t see anyone shying away from the history,” Steven says. “People want to know the true story of the founding of our country.”
Because of the pandemic, however, the new permanent exhibition did not open to the public as scheduled on April 1. The Independent toured the exhibit recently to describe it for readers who cannot yet visit in person.
The “Our Story” exhibit is in a large room at the far end of the museum. Earth-toned walls and a large oak tree greet visitors to the space, which is lined with panels depicting historical characters. The panels are printed on canvas — like the Mayflower’s sails — and tied with deerskin to white birch frames.
“We wanted to create as natural a space as possible and develop an exhibit using materials that would have been available 400 years ago,” says Steven Peters.
The first series of panels explores the history of Wampanoag peoples of Cape Cod, detailing their culture, livelihoods, and ways of communication. Other panels depict first encounters with Europeans, who captured native people to be sold into slavery or put on display as curiosities in Europe. Other panels show Wampanoag and Pilgrim leaders who played key roles in this history, including Awashonks, Sôkushq of Sakonnet, a matriarch who negotiated treaties to defend her people.
At the center of the exhibition are two artifact cases, one of Native American and the other of European objects. Touchscreens on the walls provide more information through interviews with experts and reenactments.
In With the Truth
The new exhibit is markedly different from the old, which told a one-sided story.
Paula Peters says the most noticeable difference is that the old murals are gone. They were painted in 1971 by a retired advertising artist who was not a historian.
“If you look at the seascapes of the murals, they were lovely,” Paula says. “But when it came to depicting history, he sucked. They were grossly inaccurate on all levels. He clearly portrayed the Wampanoag from stereotypes. The outfits they were wearing were straight from The Lone Ranger.”
In the old murals, the Europeans have detailed individual features. The Wampanoag were shown wearing rodeo chaps; their faces were identical. The new panels depict a range of Wampanoag people dressed in historically accurate clothing, researched through primary source documents.
The old murals are currently in storage. Paula Peters points out that they, too, are part of the history.
“They tell a story about that era,” she says, “what people were thinking, as much as it’s incorrect.”
The new exhibition addresses the importance of revisiting this history. One panel details the development of stereotypes about Native Americans.
One example is sports teams’ appropriating cultural themes and imagery. The panel points out that this denigration is not “honoring” native culture. Instead, stereotypes about native peoples being “savages” or “good Indians” are the products of centuries of racism that justified settler colonialism.
The information presented in the renovated exhibit comes directly from the journals of the Pilgrims, who “shamelessly wrote about how they mistreated Wampanoag and other native people,” says Paula. “It’s common to see how they subjugated people, took people’s land, enslaved them, all under the cloak of Christianity.”
The Pilgrims’ diaries detail their opening graves and stealing food from the Wampanoags they met on the Outer Cape.
One exhibit cannot tell the whole history of U.S. colonialism or how the European settlement of Cape Cod played out in subsequent decades. “It’s really hard to tackle the whole beast, so we take it in bits and pieces,” says Paula. “We’ll never get the whole story out in one place.”
But this exhibition’s retelling of first encounters is much improved. “I’m confident there’s a strong indigenous voice in this new exhibit,” she says. “We were able to balance the Mayflower story with a Wampanoag perspective that is strongly vetted in research.”
1920 to 2020
This year is not the first time that the Pilgrims’ landing will be commemorated. In 1920, a huge celebration took place, complete with military parades, naval exercises, fireworks, and athletic events. Similar activities took place on the 350th and 375th anniversaries.
A pamphlet from 1920 retells the story of the landing and includes a schedule of events. Readers were encouraged to donate to expanding the Pilgrim Monument, with a pathway leading down from High Pole Hill to the harbor.
Few mentions of native peoples appear in the 1920 document. One of the descriptions of the landing includes an “attack by the hostile savages.” The pamphlet also contains a poem, “The Pilgrim Mother,” which describes America’s “unknown lands, untrodden forests,” and “trackless plains” — words that erase the presence of native peoples on the land.
Lori Meads, a cochair of Provincetown 400, says that the pamphlet and poem were “very dismissive of the native people that were here. There was a lot of ignorance and disrespect of people back then.”
Provincetown Museum Executive Director David Weidner says the new exhibit attempts to address these inaccuracies. “We can’t undo the mistakes of the past, but we have a responsibility to acknowledge them and work towards a better future,” he says. “Whenever we convene a meeting, we start by acknowledging the Wampanoag people of the past and the present. They’re still here with us as the inheritors of the land we’re on.”
Meads hopes the exhibition will “leave a story that’s more reflective, accurate, and thoughtful.”
The Provincetown Museum is planning to reopen with limited visiting hours in the next few weeks. At that point, visitors can experience for themselves the new telling of an old story.
Reporting for this article was supported by a grant from the Provincetown Cultural Council, a local agency supported by the Mass. Cultural Council.