The history and future of the Wampanoag Tribe of Mashpee

Born into the Wampanoag Mashpee tribe in 1933, Chester Soliz went on to Johns Hopkins and Tufts School of Dentistry. Now retired, "Blue Duck" spends as much time as possible helping the tribe move forward. — Photo by Lynn Christoffers

Fifty years in the planning and thinking, and now the idea is a reality — the first comprehensive history of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, as written by Chester P. Soliz. Published in June, “The Historical Footprints of the Mashpee Wampanoag” is not the only book written to date about the tribe, but it is intended to be the official jumping off point for others to adapt, amend, and update in the future. Dr. Soliz will speak about and sign copies of the book at the Oak Bluffs Library at 2 pm on Wednesday, August 24.

A retired dentist, Dr. Soliz, 78, was born and raised in Mashpee. He graduated from the Lawrence High School in Falmouth, John Hopkins University, and Tufts University School of Dentistry.

Dr. Soliz grew up in a four-room cottage in an environment that depended on hunting, fishing, and farming, “We never took more than we needed and we shared,” he said during a conversation last week.

“We were living in a circumscribed area of Mashpee. We would get jobs in neighboring towns and we could see that there were certain essential aspects of life that everyone should benefit from, like indoor plumbing. There were brighter horizons and we knew that the only way you could achieve these things was by having a better educational background.”

Dr. Soliz married his high school sweetheart and settled his young family of five children near his dental practice in Yonkers, N.Y. Now a widower, Dr. Soliz divides his time between the Vineyard where his son Fenton has a home in Oak Bluffs, Sarasota, Fla., and the greater New York area. His mother was a Wampanoag Indian; his wife’s father was a Wampanoag.

“Now I am trying to spend as much time as I can with the tribe, and assist the tribe in any way that I can to make things work better for the tribe,” Dr. Soliz said. According to the text, 1,200 of the 2,000 Wampanoags in the United States are registered in Mashpee.

The four-color, 255-page book reviews the story of the tribe — the “People of the First Light” — from 1620 when they greeted the first European settlers at Eastham, through the present-day challenges facing the tribe. The chapters are divided to cover the history, culture, and spirituality of the tribe.

Lands first settled by the Wampanoag are estimated at 22,000 acres. Now, the tribe holds approximately 11,000 acres. “Of course, in our culture we never thought we were supposed to own the land,” Dr. Soliz said. “We believe that we are only caretakers of the land, that no one can own it or buy it.”

Now a tribal elder, Dr. Soliz said, “I feel that our culture has been extremely naïve. We are trained and brought up to trust people. Our culture is all about giving, sharing, and loving one another. And with this goes a degree of naivete.

“The Pilgrims would not have survived if we did not assist them. But a few months after we met them in Eastham they watched where we stored our winter supplies and they came back to rob the very people who kept them alive. We say that naivete often approaches stupidity.”

In 1976 the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, armed with a deed dated 1655, went into U.S. federal court to regain the lands lost to European settlers. The jury ruled that the deed had no standing because the Wampanoags were not in fact a tribe. It was not until May 23, 2007, that the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe received federal recognition, which entitled them to federal assistance for health care, education, housing, and social services.

“Writing this book was labor-intensive because we did not write, everything was of an oral nature so I had to go around and visit as many tribal members and elders as were still living and get as much information as possible and piece it together,” Dr. Soliz said. “I was in and out of more museums and libraries than Thorndike and Daniel Webster. The more I researched, the more I learned.”

To many tribal members today, casino ownership offers “the frosting on the cake” that was baked with the benefits of federal recognition. There are stumbling blocks, however. A federal law on the books since 1934 bars tribes recognized after that date from placing Indian lands in trust and another federal law permitting casinos requires that the land be placed in trust. In addition, the Commonwealth must pass legislation creating a gambling compact with the tribe. To date that has not happened.

“There are a few people in the tribe who may look forward to having gambling; however we really received the most beneficial priorities by way of federal recognition because that allowed the tribe to receive the benefits of health, education, welfare and housing through the Bureau of Indian Affairs,” Dr. Soliz said.

It is the possibility of legalized gambling revenues that most recently demoralized the tribe, Dr. Soliz writes. He details the secret business arrangements made by then tribal chairman Glenn Marshall as deals were made with various casino developers. As a result, Dr. Soliz writes, “The Wampanoag Tribe is approximately $20 million in debt to its investors with interest accruing. To date the tribe has not earned a penny.”

Finally, Dr. Soliz said he would like to see negotiations begin between the fractured Wampanoags of Aquinnah and Mashpee. “I have suggested that the tribes meet and discuss improving relations at elders’ meetings. I’ve said ‘why can’t we get back together. Even the Berlin Wall came down.’

“A lot of tribe members agree. We are one tribe, we do not fight one another, we do not have any major disagreements. It is just that we kind of mutually agree to disagree. And it is unfortunate. We should be a united front.”

Chester P. Soliz, 2–4 pm, Wednesday, August 24, Oak Bluffs Library.