At the end of the Spring semester, our class that had been working in the Kim-Wait Eisenberg (KWE) Native American Literature collection created a display in Frost Library that focused on books in the collection. One group of my classmates, who had by chance all focused on Wampanoag-authored works, pulled out a book for the display titled The Wampanoags of Mashpee: An Indian Perspective on United States History. For two months, that book was displayed as a powerful example of Native resistance and perseverance. What we did not realize, however, was how intimately connected that book is to other books displayed.
Over the summer, Mashpee Wampanoag author Paula Peters visited to discuss her book Mashpee Nine: A Story of Cultural Justice which focuses on the police raid and arrest of nine Mashpee-Wampanoag tribal members and their subsequent trial and acquittal. When she saw The Wampanoags of Mashpee beside her book in the exhibit, she immediately said “oh, that’s my father’s book.” At that moment, the books sighed, knowing our understanding of them was more complete than it ever could have been.
Moments later, she saw Paul Cuffe’s Narrative of the Life of Paul Cuffe and commented that she was also one of his descendants. Within five minutes, we found out that three books in one display had a family tie. What is interesting about this particular book, however, is that we did not know that Paul Cuffe was Wampanoag until Elizabeth James Perry, an artist-in-residence who had been helping our class during the semester, also said that she also was one of his descendants and that he was indeed Wampanoag, not Pequot as many had been led to believe. With their collective knowledge, this display began to bulge with a new understanding of over a century of Wampanoag resistance and persistence.
Without this collective knowledge, we would not have known Paul Cuffe’s true tribal affiliation.
Before Paula Peter’s visit, I had been looking for mentions of the Mashpee Nine trial in native-run newspapers. I spent days in the archives, flipping through newspapers from the mid 1970s and found nothing. It was not until minutes before Paula arrived, with the help and expertise of Professor Brooks, that we found an article in the Mohawk Nation newspaper Akwasasne Notes that mentioned it.
During her visit, we all got to read the article for the first time. We huddled together as I carefully flipped through the pages, looking for a sign of the trial. When we finally found it, I began to read. A few paragraphs in, I stopped reading and Paula took over when we came to a quote by her father, Council President Russell Peters: “One of the objectives of the Wampanoag council is to revive the language and reconstitute the culture. There is a desire to maintain our identity.” “That sounds like something my father would say,” Paula Peters commented after reading this section of the article, a smile visible behind her masked lips. What makes this even more touching is that Paula had already mentioned that her father had the “desire to maintain our identity” when writing his book. It was as if she knew what was to come. It was touching to see her read a few words from her father that she had not seen before. With this, our archives were able to offer Paula Peters something– her father alive and new on the page.
What adds another layer to Russell Peters’ comment is the time period in which it was said. In the late 1960s and 1970s, the Red Power movement was at its peak. Starting to gain national attention in 1969 with the 19-month Native occupation of Alcatraz, the movement demanded self-determination for Native Americans. Years later in 1973, the 71-day Native occupation of Wounded Knee protested what American Indian Movement activists saw as corrupt, government-sponsored tribal leadership.
When Russell Peters made his comment four year later, he was aware of this rift between tribal governments and community members that had played out on the national stage. His unflinching support of his community and its resistance efforts highlighted not only the heterogeneity of Native communities but also that the Mashpee Wampanoag community would continue to be one of resistance.
When Paula first arrived, I mentioned that I was having trouble finding articles that mentioned the Mashpee Nine trial. Letting me know that she too struggled to find any, she pointed me to a 1977 Harvard Crimson article on the Mashpee Nine that she had found while researching for her book. In this article, Earl Mills, Jr., one of the nine whose arrest was the focus of Peters’ book, is quoted, commenting on the power of their resistance efforts: “the town was trying to put the flame out, but as it was, they couldn’t.” Incredibly, we had a book in the collection that had a direct relation to him: Son of Mashpee: Reflections of Chief Flying Eagle, A Wampanoag. This book, gifted to the collection in 2014 by Danielle Trevino, was written by Earl Mills, Sr., the former Chief of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe and the father of the man quoted in the Harvard Crimson article.
In just one visit, our understanding of the KWE Native American Literature collection grew exponentially. Through relationships– the one we have with Paula Peters, the ones she has with her family and community– the knowledge and context that we did not know was missing became some of the most important and interesting information we could have. Whenever possible, building relationships with communities whose works you are reading or engaging is integral not just for ethical reasons, but also to reveal the webs of knowledge beyond the pages.