Mashpee Nine: A Story of Cultural Justice is a book that came to the Kim-Wait/Eisenberg Native American Literature Collection recently, evidenced by the personal note from Wampanoag author Paula Peters giving the copy to the Archives. Mashpee Nine was published in 2016 by SmokeSygnals . Mashpee Nine is a poignant story about police brutality and the community’s response, written from a tribal member’s perspective. The narrative is set during a pivotal period of time in Mashpee history, the 1960s and 1970s. Prior to the 1960s, the town of Mashpee was almost entirely run by Wampanoag people, and in the first few pages Peters describes a peaceful, tribal existence before the gentrification of the 1960s. These early descriptions are examples of Jean O’Brien’s concept of resisting, illustrating a very much alive community of Native New Englanders in the 20th century, still living on their ancestral land. The descriptions Peters provides are a stark contrast to any idea of ‘last Indians’ that local historical accounts may provide. In fact, the idyllic language she uses almost reminds me of ‘pre-settlement’ descriptions we read by 19th century ‘historians,’ detailing what life looked like for the Indian in the ancient days. Yet Peters’s description differs dramatically: she’s describing Mashpee life pre-1960, existing alongside colonial settlement for the last 300 years. Additionally, post-1960, the Indians are still there.

The story of the Mashpee Nine centers O’Brien’s concept of resistance, as the Wampanoag address the injustice facing their community in distinctly modern ways- through the legal system and civil lawsuits for legal land ownership. The Mashpee community resists the narrative of an extinct community simply by existing, gathering and drumming together, such as they were doing when a police raid occurred in 1976. When the charges against the Mashpee Nine were brought, the lawyer, Lew Gurwitz, requested that the men be sworn into the court on a medicine pipe instead of the bible. This request was granted, an early win for the Mashpee Nine and a clear example of Mashpee resistance to assimilation while functioning savvily in the modern context of the courtroom. Peters dedicates the book to the memory of Lew Gurwitz, a non-Native lawyer who got all of the Mashpee Nine acquitted. As Peters writes, her dedication is in honor of: “his endowment for future generations of Wampanoag.”

Peters writes a narrative of the year of 1976 rich with modern interviews that she conducted with community members recalling their memories. Calling upon her journalistic roots, she even attempts to get comments from some of the police that took part, though only one who wasn’t directly involved agreed to interview with her. The compilation and interspersing of quotes throughout the piece show how much of a community project this book was. She includes a narrative of a “Boy” throughout, who floated on the periphery of the raid and courtroom but who we later learn held deep remorse for throwing rocks at the police as an adolescent the night of the raid. Peters tells us his story anonymously throughout the book and at the end comments on the healing quality of being able to tell one’s story, a message we are meant to take both specifically in the case of the Boy and as a larger remark on the necessity of the book.

 

 

 

Peters has two pieces in Dawnland Voices, one an oration given to the Massachusetts Society for Mayflower Descendants and the other a tongue-in-cheek article about a non-Native woman who copyrighted the term “wampum.” Paula Peters is the daughter of Russell Peters (Fast Turtle), president of the Wampanoag Tribal Council in 1976, and the filer of the Mashpee Land Claim (briefly mentioned in Mashpee Nine) that led to federal recognition for the Mashpee. Russell Peters is also a historian, and a selection of his texts on important moments in Wampanoag history appears in Dawnland Voices.

One of the important moments Russell Peters mentions is “The Woodland Revolt,” an event of Mashpee resistance that I had read about it in William Apess’s account published in 1835, titled Indian Nullification of the Unconstitutional Laws of Massachusetts, Relative to the Marshpee Tribe, or, The Pretended Riot Explained . I saw there to be several points of connection between this text and Mashpee Nine, written 181 years apart. Both texts detailed key events of resistance in Mashpee history, after the fact, but by narrators who were directly involved and impacted by the resistance. Both texts included a variety of different voices: Apess included newspaper clippings and letters written by tribal leaders and Peters did countless interviews with direct quotations integrated into the narrative. Apess’s text shifts genres and makes direct appeals to the reader, which I found Peters did as well, particularly towards the end of the text as she illuminates the story of the “Boy.” I felt Mashpee Nine to be in direct conversation with and an example of continuity with Indian nullification of the unconstitutional laws of Massachusetts, relative to the Marshpee tribe, or, The pretended riot explained.

In an interview with Kelly Wisecup, Paula Peters makes her connection to Apess explicit:

“A lot of people ask me, what do you want people to know about the Wampanoag. And that is invariably the first thing I’ll say: ‘We’re still here.’ That’s what William Apess was saying.”

The interview was largely centered around Peters’s traveling exhibit, “Our Story,” which detailed 400 years of Wampanoag history beginning with the capture of Wampanoag men by English sailors. Peters discussed seeing her role to carry forward Wampanoag cultural knowledge and place it front and center for communities. Yet while the traveling exhibit was largely made for a non-Wampanoag audience, in the interview she described the need for Mashpee Nine, coming from an observation that the story was fading from the collective memory of the community. Peters describes the book and the accompanying documentary as increasing the awareness of what the Mashpee Wampanoag community has been through and fought for.

 

Photo Credit: Matika Wilbur

 

 

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