Tuesday, November 20, 2007

the wampanoag live on


It's that time of year again, when we all get to listen to the heartwarming story about how a fledgling group of English folk and a troupe of 90-odd American Indians gathered for the first official unofficial Thanksgiving. (Here's the kiddie version.) It's a cute story, but it's so blown out of proportion that it's kind of silly. The truth of the matter is, the Pilgrims became the original gentrifiers of this glorious land we live in—and the people who had settled into the lush woods of Massachussets and Rhode Island, well, they ended up with the short end of the stick in so many ways.

By now you may know the name of the American Indian tribe that feted with Myles Standish and the rest of the British immigrants, but in case not, let me introduce you to the Wampanoag. The Wampanoag have traditionally inhabited what is now southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island, plus the islands of Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket. There are about 2,000 Wampanoag surviving today, living mostly in the same places that the Pilgrims found them. (After a major conflict between the English and the American Indians in the late 1600s that nearly exterminated the Wampanoag, some natives were sold as slaves and sent to Bermuda, so there's a small population of Wampanoag there as well.) There are five groups of mainland American Wampanoag. Only two are recognized by the federal government, however: the Gay Head Wampanoag of Martha's Vineyard and the Mashpee Wampanoag of Cape Cod, who received their government recognition just this year.

Along with trying to gain federal recognition, some Wampanoag are currently undergoing a language reclamation project to help modern Wampanoag learn their traditional language, which went extinct more than a century ago. With the help of linguistics experts, the group is making baby steps in trying to teach younger folks the old language so that it may live again. Here's a sample of a Wampanoag text!

If you are so inclined, you can read more about the Wampanoag and their march through history. In the meantime, as you're eating your turkey dinner and gobbling down stuffing and pumpkin pie, take a moment to remember these people for their selflessness during a time when they could have turned a cold shoulder to the needy, helpless Brits. We owe them that!

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