“Some people think we all disappeared,” says Linda Coombs, a member of the Wampanoag Tribe of Aquinnah who for nearly 50 years has been a historian and museum curator specializing in knowledge of the Southern New England tribes. Born and raised on Martha’s Vineyard and currently based in Mashpee, she’s been program director of the Aquinnah Cultural Center, associate director of the Wampanoag Indigenous Program at Plimoth Plantation, and worked in the Native American program at Boston Children’s Museum.
“I remember serving on a museum committee,” she says, “and one gentleman on the museum’s board asked me, ‘Do the Indians have any sort of organization?’ Oh, my goodness! I explained to him how it’s all structured. But for him to ask that question — as if we’re all wandering aimlessly over the landscape.”
For Coombs, weeding out that kind of ignorance, tiresome as it may be, has been a pillar of her life’s work. Now she has distilled that work into Colonization and the Wampanoag Story, a creative nonfiction book intended for middle-school readers that examines how a centuries-old way of life was upended by European settlers and how that history continues to affect Native people to this day.
The book, published in September by Penguin Random House, is the third in a series titled “Race to the Truth” that also explores anti-Black racism and Chinese American exclusion. Coombs aims to combat the single story so often told to kids about the “discovery” of America and the first contacts between European settlers and the Indigenous Tribes of what is now New England.
The book appears at a time when many educators are open to and even hungry for such information, says Coombs. “For the last 20 years, teachers have been a very open and receptive group, wanting to learn the truth of history and find ways to break things down for certain age groups,” she says. She and other Wampanoag leaders have been discussing incorporating her work with the Mashpee Public Schools.
Though the book is intended for seventh-graders, it can appeal to any reader. As Coombs puts it, “It’s not not written for adults.”
The book is notable for the breadth and scope of the difficult, important subjects it examines. Its chapters explore topics ranging from the doctrine of discovery (which some historians trace to a series of papal bulls defining foreign non-Christians as subhuman and morally in need of conquest) and the pandemics that ravaged indigenous populations to King Philip’s War in the 1670s. Some sections touch on lesser-known forms of settler colonialism like debt entrapment and the negative effects of the European idea of land ownership.
The most moving sections of this largely nonfiction book are the fictional interludes, an ongoing narrative covering a year in the life of a young Wampanoag girl experiencing a traditional adolescence before the colonizers arrived. Little Bird, her sister Strawberry, and many other characters from her tribe move through a typical year: planting, prayers and rites, hunting, harvests, cooking, and even playing a football-like sport that was often used to settle disagreements instead of resorting to violence.
Coombs was determined to include these sections. “In order for people to have a better understanding of how colonization affected us, they have to have some sense of what our traditional life was like before colonization,” she says.
Archives from the colonial era are full of gaps and absences — they are based, Coombs says, almost entirely on the writings of English colonizers with very little Wampanoag perspective. So, in the fictional sections of Colonization, she turned to a practice that the cultural historian Saidiya Hartman has called “critical fabulation,” using informed imagination to expand upon what little records are available.
“I wrote that story myself,” says Coombs, “and everything that they do I’d learned over the years either through my career or through my life experience as a Wampanoag and indigenous person.”
As one might suspect, given the Wampanoag’s most prominent appearance in U.S. history books, one section of the text examines the “first Thanksgiving” and the myths that surround it to this day: that there was a feeling of friendliness on both sides and that the Pilgrims “invited” the Wampanoag to join them. Coombs says these fictions, unlike the fabulations in Colonization, are not based in fact or decades of research.
“There’s still a lot of fear about telling the truth of history because it makes the Pilgrims look bad,” Coombs says. “I had a conversation recently with someone who was pressing me about whether there were slaves on the Mayflower. He was relieved when I told him there weren’t, but the Mayflower did sail here as part of a system that espoused slavery.”
Despite the problematic nature of the “first Thanksgiving” story, Coombs emphasizes that “there’s nothing wrong with families gathering and having dinner. The part that gets skewed is what people are thankful for. Many people are thankful for living in ‘a free country’ — and yet the whole reason they’re here is because the land was taken from us, and everything here was built on the backs of Black and indigenous slaves.”
The fourth Thursday in November is also recognized as the National Day of Mourning: a day of protest and remembrance by Native Americans and their allies seeking to educate the public about struggles past and present. For Coombs, this represents a cause dear to her heart: “We must remember history, and on the National Day of Mourning, we try to address all the issues still standing that stem from history not being appropriately told.
“To me, every single one of us is responsible for history,” Coombs says. “We can’t change what happened in the past, but we can learn the truth of what did happen without fear or defensiveness. Native people are still being affected by people’s ignorance and we can only fix things if people aren’t afraid to look at the past.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article, published in print on Nov. 23, incorrectly identified Linda Coombs as a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag rather than the Wampanoag Tribe of Aquinnah.