This past semester, I took an Indigenous Studies course taught by Lisa Brooks. When summer rolled around, a couple of my peers and I stayed on campus to continue working with her. All of our work centered on the Kim-Wait/Eisenberg (KWE) Native Amherst Literature Collection. This collection was acquired by Amherst in 2013 but is continually growing and expanding.
My favorite part of my summer job was what Professor Brooks refers to as “community building.” One example of community building was when we met with Paula Peters. Paula Peters is a Mashpee Wampanoag author, whose work is featured in the KWE Collection, who we had the pleasure of spending the day with recently. Talking with Paula Peters was incredible, as she greatly expanded our knowledge of the collection and her own work.
One thing that stayed, seared into my mind, from the conversation with Paula Peters was a personal anecdote she shared. Paula Peters said that, in second grade, she had been told that Native Americans didn’t exist anymore. It was around Thanksgiving, and Paula’s teacher was giving the typical (probably problematic) spiel about Pilgrims and Native Americans that is repeated in elementary school classrooms around the nation. The teacher’s story ended by stating that Indigenous people were a remnant of the past, as they had been wiped out, erased by disease and illness. Obviously, Paula Peters knew this wasn’t true. Her hand shot into the air, desperate to show to her classmates and teacher the falsehood of the narrative, to prove and stand steady in her own existence and humanity.
Hearing Paula Peter’s story was simultaneously shocking and not surprising in the slightest. Her story is an example of the Indigenous erasure narrative, a foul myth implanted in the New England psyche. As stated by Jean O’Brien in her 2010 book Firsting and Lasting, this myth acts to “relegate Indians to the past by suggesting that they were passive and static in nature and that this foreclosed the possibility of their ongoing participation in the making of a future” (105). Indigenous people are claimed to “reside in an ahistorical temporality in which they can only be the victims of change, not active subjects in the making of change” (105). The erasure narrative has been projected onto Indigenous people to justify European colonization; once Native peoples are eliminated from the picture, European conquest appears more justified, a noble and brave act rather than an act of intense settler-colonial violence. In An Afro- Indigenous History of the United States, Kyle T. Mays states that “land dispossession and erasure in the realm of popular culture go hand in hand in further dispossessing Native people, and erroneously educate the general populace…that Native people no longer exist” (Mays, 84). However, Indigenous disappearance and passivity is a myth, while Indigenous survival and resistance is the reality. In this post, I’ll be focusing specifically on resistance by Mashpee Wampanoag people, inspired largely by Paula Peters’ visit.
Although much Wampanoag land has been unjustly taken by European colonizers through various veils of legal and illegal means, the Wampanoag people have not and do not idly stand by these encroachments. In our conversation, Paula Peters described the Mashpees’ response to injustices as stubbornness, a sense that “you’re not just gonna walk all over us.” This stubbornness is reflected in Paula Peters’ 2016 book, Mashpee Nine: A Story of Cultural Justice.
The book is thin and slick; it has a black cover with the silhouette of a man proudly holding a drum stick in the air. It was added to the KWE Collection in 2017, when Paula Peters came to Amherst College to speak at the screening of the 2016 documentary film, The Mashpee Nine, which Paula wrote and produced. Both the book and documentary follow the story and trial of nine Mashpee men who were arrested and beaten for “excessive noise making” when they were drumming at a gathering on their own tribal lands. Following the arrest, the Mashpee community rallied behind the men. In The Mashpee Nine, Peter D’Errico, Emeritus Professor of Legal Studies at University of Massachusetts, said that the lawyer defending the Mashpee Nine viewed the case as “an opportunity to change how the law looks at you. Sure it’s gonna mean work, sure you’re gonna have to take the heat, but I’m right there with you” (37:40). On the day of the court case, Mashpee people flooded the courtroom to show their support, and all nine men were found innocent on all charges. Reading the book and watching the film was a powerful experience for me; the Wampanoag resilience and fight in response to injustice was admirable.
This Wampanoag resistance is not merely a modern phenomenon; rather, it can be traced back in the KWE collection to William Apess’ 1835 Indian Nullification of the Unconstitutional Laws of Massachusetts. As a physical book, it has frail pages that are weathered yellow, pages that I turned carefully for fear of them disintegrating under my touch. Despite Indian Nullification’s old and fragile appearance, its content is powerful and still relevant to modern day struggles of Indigenous peoples.
Its author, William Apess, was a prominent figure in early Indigenous resistance. Though Apess is a Pequot Indian, he was adopted by the Mashpee tribe, and played a significant role in advocating for Mashpee rights and documenting Mashpee history. The book describes the Mashpee Woodland Revolt, a nonviolent response of Wampanoag people to the encroachment of European colonization. During this time, Wampanoag people lived under an extremely oppressive and exploitative system involving Overseers, non-Native people appointed by the Massachusetts state government to supposedly ‘assist’ Indigenous people through means of religious and secular education. Overseers had the ability to force Mashpee people (even children) into indentured servitude and to manage, and sell, Indigenous resources, such as the wood in their forests. As stated by Apess in Indian Nullification, “The laws were calculated to drive the tribe from their possessions, and annihilate them” (79). Apess continues to point out that “such laws would work the same effect upon any other people; for human nature is the same under skins of all colors” (79). Rather than Indigenous peoples’ poverty and dispossession being a result of their own ineptitude, it is a result of a corrupt system and laws that allow white people to exploit people of color and their resources. The Overseer system was opposed by Wampanoag people, who desired the restoration of self-governance and the protection of their resources.
From this unrest, resistance emerged. The Mashpee wrote petitions and resolutions that they sent to various institutions, including Harvard University, which had placed a missionary in the meetinghouse, and legislative bodies, including the Massachusetts Senate. In The Common Pot Lisa Brooks writes that “the Mashpee petitions and resolutions, as well as Indian Nullification itself, demonstrate the continuing use of writing as an instrument for communal re-memberment and land reclamation, as well as a powerful means of narrating Native continuance” (197). Written resolutions provide resistance to the erasure narrative, replacing it with a narrative of unjust displacement. Additionally, written resolutions display that Indigenous people are capable of acting in ‘modern’ ways and will actively protest encroachment against their rights. Indigenous people are aware that “New England history is Indian history, and Indian people continue to resist the audacious colonialism inaugurated by those who stumbled onto Plymouth Rock” (O’Brien, 189). The resolutions also created important publicity; in “Letter from Barnstable Jail: William Apess and the ‘Memorial of the Mashpee Indians’” Drew Lopenzina writes that “part of Apess’s scheme was to make these resolutions public, openly proclaiming their intentions to the power structure that lorded over them and also to the press” (112). Publication was used as an advocacy tool throughout the revolt. While the resolutions provide an obvious example, newspaper articles responding to the Mashpee Woodland Revolt also acted to shape public opinion and spread awareness. I read many newspaper articles while reading Indian Nullification, as Apess shaped his narrative through the inclusion of these works.
Indian Nullification is not the only Apess book I have read in the KWE Collection. In fact, all five of Apess’ published books are in the Collection. During the spring semester I read Apess’ 1837 book, Eulogy on King Philip.
Apess is a powerful and revolutionary author; he “represents an apex of the Native northeastern intellectual tradition, writing his relations into a narrative of continuance at a time when the rest of New England was heavily invested in the tragic story of extinguishment” (Brooks, 163). In Eulogy on King Philip Apess memorializes King Philip, a seventeenth-century Wampanoag sachem and reframes the history of King Philip’s War. He critiques the supposed legitimacy of colonial law, not only in Philip’s time, but his own, addressing its continuing impact. Apess writes, “look at the disgraceful laws, disenfranchising us as citizens. Look at the treaties made by Congress, all broken” (53). Apess asserts that if the colonizers “give the Indian his rights… you may be assured war will cease” (55). Reading multiple works by Apess made it clear to me that he both advocates against the erasure narrative and for Indigenous rights; his advocacy is part of the important Wampanoag history of resistance.
Despite its falsehood, there has been and continues to be an Indigenous erasure narrative taught in New England. While this narrative is disheartening, my recent engagement with the KWE Collection has given me renewed hope, as I have come to realize that there is a powerful and ongoing thread of New England resistance against this erasure narrative.