12,000 Years of Wampanoag History

Photo credit: Courtney Wittenstein

Cape Cod is one of the most important regions of Native American life in the United States. Centered in the town of Mashpee, the Wampanoag Tribe is the only registered Native American tribe on the Cape. Ramona Peters, a member of the Chief’s Circle, says, “Our ancestors are quite literally part of the soil of this land, therefore we are part of the soil of this land.”

With a history stretching back centuries, the Wampanoag are a vital part of the Cape’s cultural landscape. Trish Keliinui, the PR & Communications Manager, adds, “The Wampanoag Nation once included sixty-nine tribes. Presently, there are three remaining of the sixty-nine including the Mashpee, the Aquinnah (Gay Head) and Herring Pond.”

Despite this decline in numbers, Mashpee’s Wampanoag Tribe is thriving, thanks in large part to the Tribal Council’s extensive efforts to preserve their values and way of life. Jessie “Little Doe” Baird, the Vice Chairwoman of the Tribal Council, explains, “Our philosophy includes being mindful that the actions we take and the work we do now will have a direct effect on the seventh generation to come after us.”

Visitors interested in learning more about their enduring culture should check out the Mashpee Wampanoag Indian Museum, the only museum in the country exclusively devoted to Wampanoag history. “Often times we are underestimated, however, we have existed for 12,000 years,” says Keliinui. From the Stone Age to present day, the museum highlights the rich indigenous culture and historical significance of the tribe. Baskets, tools, heirlooms, and weapons are all on display, as well as a large diorama depicting an early Wampanoag settlement, all of which allow visitors an in-depth look at the history of the tribe.

The Wampanoag are also an active member of the larger Cape community, organizing festivals and events throughout the year, including artisan festivals, Columbus Day lectures, and the annual Mashpee Wampanoag Powwow. “We keep our culture and traditions alive by simply continuing to practice them,” Peters says. At these events, visitors can enjoy traditional music and dances, hear stories and history, and purchase pieces from skilled Native American artists.

A particularly special event at the Mashpee Wampanoag Powwow is the naming of the Powwow Princess. One smart, driven, and qualified young lady is chosen to help represent the tribe for the next year. Keliinui explains, “A panel of Tribal members, including Tribal Elders and Clan Mothers, and on occasion past Princesses, conduct an interview including questions regarding Traditional leadership, present-day leadership, the importance of maintaining cultural values and future aspirations of the princess candidate, among other relevant discussion items.”

The town of Mashpee offers a variety of resources for visitors interested in learning more. “We do have a strong relationship with our local chamber of commerce where visitors often ask how to learn more about the Mashpee Wampanoag,” Peters explains. “They are able to provide points of interest and contacts to our offices.”

For Baird and her colleagues, the work of protecting and preserving Wampanoag culture will have a profound impact on the entire Cape community for generations to come. “We understand that Creation has given to us many privileges as well as responsibilities,” she says. “The earth, the sun, the moon, the wind, our waters, and all living beings, our language and understanding of the world are all privileges. We also recognize our responsibility to be stewards of these gifts and to take care of our sisters and brothers.”

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