‘We are the original people of this land’

Aquinnah tribe members guest-curate Indigneous Peoples exhibit at Peabody Museum.

As a longtime historian, a member of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) and program director at the Aquinnah Cultural Center, Linda Jeffers Coombs knows a lot about her ancestors.

Still, in helping Harvard University’s Peabody Museum create an exhibit to be released Thursday, in time for Monday’s Indigenous Peoples Day, she was able to delve deeper into her family’s history. But most important, she was able to share the culture and heritage from her tribe to remind everyone that the Aquinnah Wampanoag are still here. 

“I’m into whatever people can get out there about Wampanoag people, because we’re continually fighting the stereotype that we all disappeared,” she said. “It’s not as bad as it was years ago, but every once in a while you run into someone who thinks that, or they think we’ve assimilated, meaning we’ve given up everything Wampanoag to be nonnatives. That’s not true either. So an exhibit like this totally informs and corrects that type of thought.”

The exhibit (online only, because of the ongoing pandemic) features audio clips by several members of the Aquinnah tribe, including Coombs, members of the Mashpee Wampanoag, and a member of the Herring Pond Wampanoag. It comes as Plymouth celebrates the 400th anniversary of English settlers arriving on the shores of Patuxet (now Plymouth) in 1620 aboard the Mayflower. The exhibit is titled, “Listening to Wampanoag Voices: Beyond 1620.”

“Our director Jane [Pickering] wanted to think of a way to acknowledge the big 400th anniversary that so many institutions and people and places are commemorating. We looked at our collection to see what we had. We have a number of things from both the Masphee and the Aquinnah communities. We have one item from the 17th century, and other things from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries,” Meredith Vasta, collections steward, told The Times. “The 400th anniversary means different things to different people, and for our Wampanoag neighbors this wasn’t the best thing. It wasn’t a great event. It came with a lot of repercussions for their community and way of life. For a lot of folks, it’s a difficult commemoration. It really makes you think about the challenges and hardships and the things these communities faced. We wanted to blur the focus on 1620 and Thanksgiving, and all the things our Wampanoag neighbors get asked about. We really wanted to refocus on what happened after 1620. What were these communities up to? What were they doing? Focus on the opportunity, the vibrancy, everything that makes this contemporary Wampanoag community today.”

Coombs was asked to research and talk about an 18th century photograph of two men. Pictured were Deacon Thomas Jeffers and Aaron Cooper. Coombs spoke to other tribe members and also did research at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum to learn about them. In the process, she found that her own genealogy traces back to a different Jeffers family.

In a separate clip for the project, Coombs speaks about a beach grass basket from the 19th century. As a weaver herself, Coombs is familiar with the twining technique, which dates back centuries.

Elizabeth James-Perry, another member of the Aquinnah tribe, and an independent researcher, also participated in the exhibit. She was asked to speak about a scarlet sash made of handspun Indian hemp sewing thread that’s believed to be 300 years old.

“By happy chance I saw it in storage at Peabody Harvard in 2005, and was later able to get museum staff to take a closer look at it too, culminating in a research paper we presented in Paris at the American Indian Workshop in 2007,” she told The Times. “That sash led me to take many journeys; to understand more of the terrain. I believe it came from Maine …”

A wampum and textile artist, James-Perry said early wampum, quillwork, and weaving ended up overseas. She said her experience in researching those early works “continues to shape the way I design my art today.”

For the Peabody Museum, it was important to use the voices of tribe members to share those links to the past. “We really wanted to let the Wampanoag folks talk about these objects. We didn’t want a nonnative Peabody curator talking about them,” Vasta said. “We really wanted to turn it over and let the community be the guest curators.”

The introduction is narrated by Paula Peters, a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe. Both Coombs, who worked for nearly 30 years at Plimoth Plantation, and Peters have been working with the Plymouth 400 Committee on an advisory group to ensure that the tribe’s role is not lost in the celebration.

Wampanoag members have created “Our Story,” which looks at the years up through 1620, including a plague brought by European explorers that nearly wiped out the tribes. The final one will premiere on the National Day of Mourning, which is what natives call Thanksgiving. Meanwhile, Coombs was also involved in creating an Indigenous Peoples’ Conference, which is being hosted by Bridgewater State University. “They’re largely based on what people are doing today,” she said of the sessions. “How culture, how tradition, how indigeneity is being carried forward as we have come through the past 400 years, and at this point, what we are going to do for the next 400 years.” 

Perry said the attention focused on the Wampanoag is important. “2020 has given the American population important topics to reflect and act on, many of which are intertwined: race, equality, public health, economics,” she said. “As Wampanoag, we are the original people of this land; our culture spans millennia, and contributions to this country have continued even during 400 years of tumult. Our authentic, creative culture deserves at least equal time and space in the cultural institutions, and in virtual space, and this exhibit is a step in the right direction.”

The exhibit is now available online. Here’s the URL: bit.ly/PeabodyWampanoag.