History tells Wampanoag story of Christianity and survival
Don't let the footnotes put you off.
"Faith and Boundaries," a new history of the Wampanoag Indians of Martha's Vineyard, has been published by the Cambridge University Press as the latest book in a scholarly series entitled, dauntingly, "Studies in North American Indian History."
In "Faith and Boundaries," author David J. Silverman, an assistant professor of history at George Washington University, has done much more than write a book that merits a place beside the famous History of Martha's Vineyard by Dr. Charles Banks. He has accomplished what curator Jill Bouck at the Martha's Vineyard Historical Society calls "an amazing job of scholarship."
Declares Ms. Bouck: "This is a landmark in Wampanoag history reporting - really a benchmark for where to get your information. This is the best reference we have. It's all there."
Still more remarkably, Mr. Silverman's history is receiving similar accolades from inside the Wampanoag tribe. "I feel David has done an excellent job," says June Manning of Aquinnah, who chairs the tribe's education committee and has served as its genealogist for many years.
Ms. Manning remembers first meeting Mr. Silverman six or seven years ago, when he was an eager young researcher burrowing for information at the Dukes County Registry of Deeds. "He felt there was a story to be told here," she recalls, "and he wanted to tell it. We're all very appreciative of his research - he's really captured the essence of what our community was like."
Illustrations from "Faith and Boundaries"
Tobias Vanderhoop, a member of the tribal council who is thanked prominently by Mr. Silverman for his help in the book's preparation, says, "I give David all of the respect and kudos because he did get it right. He did something that most scholars refuse to do - he came in to speak directly to the people he was writing about, and make an effort to know them. I'm proud to call him a friend as well as an associate, a colleague.
"Not only did David come in and speak with our elders, but he came back, and when he did research that answered a question left in his mind after one of these conversations, he came back and made sure that he acknowledged the accuracy of the oral tradition that's within our community. That's something scholars don't normally do. He came back and made sure that he showed his appreciation for the way we have maintained our tradition within our community."
Yes, "Faith and Boundaries" is every bit as scholarly as you might expect from a book that grew out of a doctoral dissertation written for Princeton University. The book is so heavily annotated - with 1,043 footnotes in its 303 pages - that it opens with a five-page table of abbreviations guiding readers through Mr. Silverman's historic sources, from AAS (American Antiquarian Society) to ZHP (the papers of Zachariah Howwoswee at Brown University).
And yet: Don't let the footnotes put you off.
A Refusal to Vanish
This is the gripping human story of a proud, intelligent and creative community's refusal to vanish in the face of forces that destroyed others like it all across New England and the young American nation. Mr. Silverman has laced his book with stories of the strong-minded individuals and leaders who managed to carve out, for the Wampanoags of Martha's Vineyard, a middle path between the two extreme options of war with the whites, which brought one form of annihilation, and utter capitulation to the colonists, which brought another.
Mr. Silverman drops a wonderful line in his preface, quoting another scholar's remark that islands "are a catalogue of quirks and superlatives," and that it's risky to draw broad conclusions from them. Yet he argues persuasively that the broader history of Indians and colonists in the United States will be enriched by an examination of the Vineyard experience, and its unique outcome.
The accomplishment of the Vineyard Wampanoags in the face of colonization is remarkable, Mr. Silverman said in a recent conversation about his book: "They saved their community, which is the most important thing of all."
Mr. Silverman knew at the outset of his graduate studies at Princeton that there was an important story to tell on the Vineyard. What he didn't know for sure was whether there was enough data to support a historian's approach. It didn't take long before he felt confident of the answer:
"The Island is brimming over with Colonial-era documents," he said, "and off-Island there are incredible supplementary materials. A lot of the folks working at the Martha's Vineyard Historical Society and at the registry of deeds are aware of these materials, but the larger historical public is incredibly ignorant of the gold mine here on the Island."
Mr. Silverman began digging into that gold mine with a will in 1998, and he also decided early on to cultivate strong relationships, and build an active dialogue, with members of the Wampanoag tribe.
Building those relationships was hard work, and often a matter of two steps forward, one back, as Mr. Silverman recalls it. But the fruits of this work permeate his book, enabling him to tell the story of the Island Wampanoags with a sensitivity and depth that have not been approached before in the annals of scholarship.
"What I found," he said, "was that there were awkward moments in the beginning, but as with any relationship, the more we got to know each other, the easier things got. I certainly understood the reluctance of many Native people to speak to scholars, because scholars have turned around and used Native contributions against Native communities in so many ways - casting doubt upon Native oral traditions, characterizing Native storytellers as naïve and ignorant, and then using Native history to justify agendas that ran contrary to Native interests. I was fully aware of that, going in.
"At the same time, there were two principles that were leading me to contact the Native community. The first was that when you're doing the history of Native peoples, the sources are very thin. You need to maximize all your resources, and I saw Native oral testimony as one of them.
"Secondly, I think that scholars do carry a special obligation to Native peoples, because of the very jaded history that's preceded this period. I saw absolutely no reason why the community couldn't participate in the process of my research and add to it. So that was my approach."
Mr. Silverman admitted there were setbacks at first, but added: "Once I learned how to frame my questions according to their standards of courtesy, and to listen as well as talk, things went very well. We've had a constructive relationship for many years now, and it's an ongoing one."
Mr. Silverman recalled his first lesson, one that was distilled for him by Tobias Vanderhoop. "Tobias said to me, 'Look: people weren't as cooperative with you in the beginning as they were later, because they had to make sure that you were going to continue to show up, and that you were going to develop a relationship here.' The relationships themselves are critical - building a bond of trust. It took awhile before the conversation flowed. They had to realize I was going to keep coming back."
His second lesson was patience.
"In the culture that I operate in, people interrupt each other all the time - they try to get people back on point when they wander off. You cannot do that [in Aquinnah], at least among the elders. There is no breach of etiquette as rude as interrupting an elder. So if the elder is going to talk for an hour, you sit and listen for an hour, and that's the long and short of it - usually the long of it.
"I had to learn that lesson in a very hard way. But I did learn it, and when I did breach etiquette, I apologized for it, and promised to do better. And you know, I found that I also learned a lot more when I listened to what they had to say instead of forcing them into the boxes I was trying to erect around them."
Patience. Respect. Listening. Coming back, again and again. These are the secrets of David Silverman's success among the Wampanoags. And a reader of "Faith and Boundaries" comes away convinced that he must have brought that same patience and sensitive ear to the historical records from which he has mined this compelling story of a people's endurance, of their battle to save so much of what was precious to them, even as much was being lost.
Carefully Picked Battles
The Realpolitik of tribal leaders in this story begins on nearly the first page, with the decision of the sachem Tawanquatuck to sell land at the eastern end of the Island to Thomas Mayhew rather than risk the horrible violence that the Pequot War had just visited on the mainland. It was the sort of bargain that would characterize Indian life on Martha's Vineyard for the next three centuries and more: giving up one thing to protect something more precious still.
Readers will find the first statement of Mr. Silverman's compelling central thesis on page 12. The Vineyard Wampanoags who fared best during the trying years since 1642, he argues, are those who understood "that seemingly powerless people could chart space between a suicidal violent resistance and an unthinkable total surrender by combining resourcefulness, resilience, adaptability, and carefully picked battles."
In his recent interview, Mr. Silverman emphasized that this, for many scholars, is a new way of looking at Indian history. "Charles Banks is a wonderful resource on Island history," he said, "but you know, he was very dismissive of Native American people. He didn't recognize their role, or just how dynamic their history on the Island was.
"Banks was writing at a time when the history of Indians, when it was addressed at all, was always a history of decline. What we're realizing now is that, without question, decline is part of the story, but change and adjustment are, too. You can't explain how these people are still around after all they've been through unless you accept that they've adopted very difficult, but strategic and systematic, reforms over the years, which is testimony to their adaptability."
Thanks to that resilience and adaptability, Mr. Silverman said, the Vineyard Wampanoags have saved both their community and a vital connection to their ancestral lands. "The land is a repository for their stories. It's covered with mnemonic devices, triggers for their stories. You take a walk with these folks through the community - they'll point to a feature of the land, and that will be the spark for a much larger story. The fact that they have this land allows them to retain the face-to-face community that keeps these stories in circulation, even when they're not written down.
"And the folklore is distinct. That's unmistakable when you hang out with these folks. They're consummate storytellers. One story after another, and another."
The Praying Indians
The subtitle of Mr. Silverman's book is "Colonists, Christianity, and Community among the Wampanoag Indians of Martha's Vineyard, 1600-1871." And his book argues forcefully that the Wampanoags turned the Christianity of the colonizing missionaries into a bulwark of their own community, an expression of their Native culture and a powerful tool for mediating their relationship with the English.
But Mr. Silverman is quick to admit that "Faith and Boundaries" is not a theological history of the Wampanoag people. "I tried to stay as aware of distinct Wampanoag religious ideas as I could, but the sources are necessarily problematic on that. Maybe there is an opportunity here to do a history of Wampanoag theology. But I'm not entirely sure if there's enough material to do that."
Perhaps the closest Mr. Silverman comes to theology is when he writes, "Be they English or Indian, the people of seventeenth-century New England lived in a world of spirits. On Martha's Vineyard, Christianity was the way they both decided to come to terms with that world."
Finally, about those footnotes: "I realize some would-be readers will be alienated by all the scholarly apparatus," Mr. Silverman said. "I would encourage them to read past that. If they're not interested, they don't have to read that part.
"But I made a promise to the members of the tribe early on. What I said to them is, if you want to question any of the points I make in this book, you'll be able to go to the footnotes and trace exactly where I'm getting this information. And that was important to them."
"Faith and Boundaries Colonists, Christianity and Community among the Wampanoag Indians of Martha's Vineyard, 1600-1871." By David J. Silverman. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005. 303 pages, hardcover. $60.
Nis Kildegaard is an editor and writer who lives in Edgartown. He is the designer and editor of Framework, the Journal of Affordable Housing on Martha's Vineyard.