Whose history is it? That’s what moving exhibition “‘Our’ Story: 400 Years of Wampanoag History” is all about. It showcases the cultural realities of the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower voyage in 1620 and the founding of Plymouth Colony. This small gem of a show is nestled in the Aquinnah Cultural Center, a 19th century historic Wampanoag family homestead at the Aquinnah Cliffs.
The first English settled permanently on Noepe, the Wampanoag name for Martha’s Vineyard, in 1641. But the Wampanoag in Patuxet — called Plymouth by the English — had experiences with the English for decades prior. These interactions make for a stirring exhibition about the Europeans’ and the Wampanoag people’s earliest contact, from the Wampanoag perspective — a voice often silenced in the colonial narrative.
Behind the unprecedented exhibition is organizer Plymouth 400, along with SmokeSygnals, an indigenous-founded and -run communications group that worked closely with its Wampanoag advisory committee. The Indian Spiritual and Cultural Training Council and SmokeSygnals conceptualized, researched, and produced “‘Our’Story,” and members of the Mashpee and Aquinnah Wampanoag tribes portrayed historical figures for the exhibit in first-person narratives that shine a light on historic events with a significant impact on the Wampanoag tribe, their relationship with the Mayflower Pilgrims, and the founding of Plymouth Colony — cornerstone events that shaped America’s earliest beginnings.
The first section, “Captured 1614,” begins with the life-altering events at Patuxet when Captain Thomas Hunt comes to trade with the Wampanoag, whose ancestors had inhabited and thrived in this area for thousands of years before the Europeans arrived. What unfolds is the telling of how the Wampanoag men were tackled, beaten, and then restrained in the bowels of the ship to be sold as slaves.
In one clip, a woman tells of the futile efforts to try and save the men, and the devastation when they didn’t come back. She says, “They were taken over blankets. Our best warriors, our best hunters, were among the many who were taken. All sons, many fathers, and many husbands … My child’s father is gone. I don’t know if I’ll see him again.” In the “Season of the Green Corn” clip, a Wampanoag man says the next morning they were “looking for the sails to bring our people back. But it was not to be.” In another narrative, a young man shackled in the ship says, “I must save hope … for we have been stripped of our hope and our courage,” and continues with anguish, “Warriors are now slaves.”
A new section has been added every year since the exhibit’s inception in 2014. “The Great Dying” depicts the catastrophic effects of a plague that devastated the Wampanoag nation between 1616 and 1619, killing “some 90,000 to 100,000 natives in an epidemic that ravaged villages from Maine to Cape Cod.” Yet another piece is about Epanow (later known as Squanto), who was captured in 1611, and how he escaped some three years later, returning to his people by promising the English that there was a gold mine on Noepe.
Other components of the exhibit include matriarchal leaders such as Awashonks, a sachem of the Sakonnet tribe in Rhode Island. During the mid-1600s, they were among the league of Native signers of a 1671 agreement with Plymouth Colony intended to stave off conflict, as well as inherit the Wampanoag style of governance that the founding fathers borrowed many elements of for the Constitution.
“We felt like that was something that hasn’t really happened before, and so it was an important project to undertake,” said Steven Peters, who co-founded SmokeSygnals with his mother, Paula. “The thing that is really different about this commemoration from past ones is that there is now a real drive to tell the history as accurately as possible. Fifty years ago, when they had the 350th commemoration, there was still a lot of censorship. Today, we’re finding the Mayflower descendants are no longer looking to censor the story. There are parts of it that are not nice to tell, and are emotional. Nobody is shying away from it. At no time during this project has anyone stepped in and said, ‘You shouldn’t tell this part of the story.’”
Peters believes there will be other platforms that leverage this moment to let the world know, “We are still here; we’re still struggling. That’s one of the challenges for Native Americans. People sometimes think we just popped up in 1620 and had no history prior to that. And that’s not the case. We had a very vibrant history before that, we just didn’t have a written language to document it in the style we’re accustomed to using now.”
Peters continued, “I want people to come away with a better understanding of the events that shaped the country that we live in, and the impact that it had on the Native Americans and the Europeans as well. Each group had certain motivations that were driving them, and we try to get that across in the exhibit. We want to get people to understand why certain decisions were made along pivotal moments in history, and what was driving them — how people could be treated the way they were.”
He concluded, “It’s exciting and also a bit emotional when you are reading what your ancestors had to go through. But it’s important work.”
“‘Our’Story: 400 Years of Wampanoag History” is on display at the Aquinnah Cultural Center at 35 Aquinnah Circle through Oct. 12. For more information, visit wampanoagtribe.org/about-cultural-center. For a preview of selected videos in the exhibition, visit vimeo.com/smokesygnals.