Wampanoag Tribe responds, says reporting unfair, comments racist

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To the Editor:

On behalf of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), I am writing to address a story published online and in print (Sept. 15, “Wampanoag tribe community center HUD deadline passes with no penalty”). The Tribal Council feels that it is necessary to comment openly on the article for two reasons: The article fails to genuinely acknowledge the focused effort that the tribe has exerted to complete our community center project; and the online version of the article has had comments posted to it since the day it was posted that contain statements that we think are disparaging, derogatory, and racist.

On the first point, rather than making a full-throated acknowledgement of our work, the article makes a passing comment about our building being “the focus of recent work.” The bare acknowledgement of our effort is insulting because it suggests that our construction has not been an ongoing endeavor.

We have been working very hard to provide this new facility for the benefit of our tribal community, and we made great progress toward our goal, even in the face of challenges, many not of our own creation. To add further insult to our injury, after the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development clearly stated that we were compliant with our project, there was more space in the article dedicated to outlining the history behind the project than there was to discussing the positive progress we’ve made. In our opinion, this article is a failed attempt to sensationalize our struggle to complete our community center, and to suggest that we should somehow be punished for the fact that completing the project has required so much effort on our part.

On the second point, regarding the extremely offensive remarks to our nation and its people, the discussion string begins with a paragraph that provides a running commentary on the difficulties that the tribe has had in completing our project. Which, truthfully, is fine. Anyone is entitled to their personal opinion and can express views on an issue without all of the facts when they so choose, or even play Monday-morning quarterback over decisions they were not required to make, as though all of it is so easy. Doing so simply shows the character of the individual who is speaking without the full knowledge of the situation.

The offense began in the several responses that followed the initial paragraph. The comments discussed below are the ones that compelled us to respond, because no one is entitled to use racially charged terms to disparage our tribal nation.

The first offensive comment, shrouded in a statement from a Native American leader of the late 1800s, shamelessly suggests that our people are a bunch of lazy Indians looking for a handout. The citizens of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) are a proud people. Our tribal citizens fortunate enough to remain on Martha’s Vineyard have done so through struggle and great effort. Anyone who lives here knows how difficult it is to scratch out a living on our Island. The rest of our people work hard to make their livings wherever they are.

Our modern tribal government does receive federal funding and other grants to provide programs, services, and other functions, but that doesn’t mean that any of us are living on “Easy Street.” The level of funding is nowhere near enough to provide for all of our people’s needs, and in reality, for the super-majority of our people, the struggle to make ends meet continues. The programs, services, and functions the tribe makes available are part of the trust responsibility of the United States to our people. The trust responsibility is a commitment to provide support to the tribes in exchange for all of the lands that were taken, bought, or otherwise acquired, which have allowed the United States to prosper.

The second set of offensive comments used the term “tar baby,” referring to our project and by association our tribe. Interestingly, the term has been the subject of great debate for years. Some defend the use of the term as a “smart literary reference” and a metaphor to define a sticky situation; however, many people feel, as we do, that the use of the term is derogatory and racist. One only needs to look up the Uncle Remus stories to begin to understand the racial connotations of the use of this term, see the associated imagery and gain an understanding of the oppression those stories describe. We feel the use of the term is wrong in any context.

We support freedom of speech 100 percent. Whether one is standing up for rights or speaking against wrongdoing, everyone has the right to voice their opinion on any topic they choose. However, the personal right to speak out turns into oppression when one begins to use that right to attack, defame, or subjugate the minds and spirits of others.

Criticism of the tribe, for one reason or another, is not at issue here. The heart of this matter is the use of offensive language and inaction on the part of the Martha’s Vineyard Times to address it and remove the offensive comments from the website. We believe that the editors of The Times have an obligation to use reason and good judgement in the public’s best interest to determine when commenters are acting appropriately and expressing concern over a matter or support for a subject, or acting inappropriately by using language that is offensive, derogatory, and even expressing racist ideas to your readership.

Tobias J. Vanderhoop, chairman

Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah)