When Mashpee Wampanoag flautist Ej Mills Brennan told me she would be bringing her boom box along with her flutes to play on Sunday morning at Chapel in the Pines, I wondered if that could really work. It did.
She started with some words about recognizing a chance to relax together in a world in so much turmoil. She played a melody on her long River Cane flute.
Sitting there with people I’ve known since Eastham Elementary days, I reflected on the continuity of life. This is the dying season. Only asters and goldenrod bring color into my yard now. Leaves are browning and falling. And two people long dear to me from the shores of our pond have died in the past two and a half weeks. The world is feeling more barren every day.
This was what I’d been longing for, a gathering with people of this land and these waters in a sacred way. And with guests, new people in town, as each of us once was. Coming together to hear the flute meditations of a descendant of the Wampanoag village once known as Nauset, now Eastham. The Unitarian-Universalist Nauset Fellowship, which owns and manages the chapel, feels a debt of gratitude to these long-disinherited stewards of the land whose name we honor.
This haunting time of year and the music Brennan was playing evoked a beautiful timelessness. I haven’t the words to describe it, so I’m glad others can play music that reaches into that place. Her songs also suggest that we can grieve together over terrible small and large losses: the possible pouring of radioactive water into Cape Cod Bay, the horrific flooding and storms generated by climate change, the inequities and injustices all around us, the loneliness and helplessness many feel. Unless we can recognize these things with others, we may freeze up inside. Or simply not pay attention.
A friend invited me on a walk over Uncle Tim’s Bridge and around the marsh in Wellfleet a few days back, a warm and sunny one. And we spoke of some awful things in our lives and those of others close to us. We were laughing by the time we got back.
When Brennan put her CD into the boom box and pushed play on “Water Please,” she added some live flute and harmony. She was accompanying herself and it worked well. She sang of the ancient ways and the destroying of trees.
The house lit up after she handed out shakers and sticks that had had their bark chewed off by her Shetland sheep. Rhythm started slowly, then her flute, then others started drumming on the 19th-century wooden chairs in the chapel. Energy built to a joyous climax. Spontaneous applause erupted as we finished.
Just before we broke for refreshments, a friend of Brennan’s and of the Fellowship announced from the back of the sanctuary, “I’m just in from the flats and have a bucket of quahogs to share with anyone who wants some!”
The MLK Action Team of the Nauset Interfaith Association will be inviting Wampanoag educators, artists, and filmmakers to various venues on the Outer Cape over the next year to build relationships. There will be study groups with tribal authors. It is past time to make Wampanoag history and stories more available to everyone, especially our teachers and students.
Is there a red sun rising, lifting with it red people, as tribal poet Robert Peters speculates in Dawnland Voices (2014)? The word Wampanoag translates as “People of the First Light.” We here on the easternmost shore of Cape Cod, where the first light hits land each day, might pay close attention.