History wants us
to believe that the Indian was a savage, illiterate, uncivilized animal.When
Frank James (1923 - February 20, 2001), known to the Wampanoag people
as Wampsutta, was invited to speak by the Commonwealth of
Massachusettsat the 1970 annual Thanksgiving feast at Plymouth. When
the text of Mr. James’ speech, a powerful statement of anger at the
history of oppression of the Native people of America, became known
before the event, the Commonwealth "disinvited" him. Wampsutta was not
prepared to have his speech revised by the Pilgrims. He left the dinner
and the ceremonies and went to the hill near the statue of the
Massasoit, who as the leader of the Wampanoags when the Pilgrims landed
in their territory. There overlooking Plymouth Harbor, he looked at the
replica of the Mayflower. It was there that he gave his speech that was
to be given to the Pilgrims and their guests. There eight or ten
Indians and their supporters listened in indignation as Frank talked of
the takeover of the Wampanoag tradition, culture, religion, and land.
That silencing of a strong and honest Native
voice led to the convening of the National Day of Mourning. The
following is the text of 1970 speech by Wampsutta, an Aquinnah
Wampanoag elder and Native American activist.
I speak to you as a man -- a Wampanoag Man. I am a
proud man, proud of my ancestry, my accomplishments won by a strict
parental direction ("You must succeed - your face is a different color
in this small Cape Cod community!"). I am a product of poverty and
discrimination from these two social and economic diseases. I, and my
brothers and sisters, have painfully overcome, and to some extent we
have earned the respect of our community. We are Indians first - but we
are termed "good citizens." Sometimes we are arrogant but only because
society has pressured us to be so.
It is with mixed emotion that I stand here to
share my thoughts. This is a time of celebration for you - celebrating
an anniversary of a beginning for the white man in America. A time of
looking back, of reflection. It is with a heavy heart that I look back
upon what happened to my People.
Even before the Pilgrims landed it was common
practice for explorers to capture Indians, take them to Europe and sell
them as slaves for 220 shillings apiece. The Pilgrims had hardly
explored the shores of Cape Cod for four days before they had robbed
the graves of my ancestors and stolen their corn and beans. Mourt's
Relation describes a searching party of sixteen men. Mourt goes on to
say that this party took as much of the Indians' winter provisions as
they were able to carry.
Massasoit, the great Sachem of the Wampanoag, knew
these facts, yet he and his People welcomed and befriended the settlers
of the Plymouth Plantation. Perhaps he did this because his Tribe had
been depleted by an epidemic. Or his knowledge of the harsh oncoming
winter was the reason for his peaceful acceptance of these acts. This
action by Massasoit was perhaps our biggest mistake. We, the Wampanoag,
welcomed you, the white man, with open arms, little knowing that it was
the beginning of the end; that before 50 years were to pass, the
Wampanoag would no longer be a free people.
Although the Puritans
were harsh to members of their own society, the Indian was pressed
between stone slabs and hanged as quickly as any other "witch."What
happened in those short 50 years? What has happened in the last 300
years? History gives us facts and there were atrocities; there were
broken promises - and most of these centered around land ownership.
Among ourselves we understood that there were boundaries, but never
before had we had to deal with fences and stone walls. But the white
man had a need to prove his worth by the amount of land that he owned.
Only ten years later, when the Puritans came, they treated the
Wampanoag with even less kindness in converting the souls of the
so-called "savages." Although the Puritans were harsh to members of
their own society, the Indian was pressed between stone slabs and
hanged as quickly as any other "witch."
And so down through the years there is record
after record of Indian lands taken and, in token, reservations set up
for him upon which to live. The Indian, having been stripped of his
power, could only stand by and watch while the white man took his land
and used it for his personal gain. This the Indian could not
understand; for to him, land was survival, to farm, to hunt, to be
enjoyed. It was not to be abused. We see incident after incident, where
the white man sought to tame the "savage" and convert him to the
Christian ways of life. The early Pilgrim settlers led the Indian to
believe that if he did not behave, they would dig up the ground and
unleash the great epidemic again.
The white man used the Indian's nautical skills
and abilities. They let him be only a seaman -- but never a captain.
Time and time again, in the white man's society, we Indians have been
termed "low man on the totem pole."
Has the Wampanoag really disappeared? There is
still an aura of mystery. We know there was an epidemic that took many
Indian lives - some Wampanoags moved west and joined the Cherokee and
Cheyenne. They were forced to move. Some even went north to Canada!
Many Wampanoag put aside their Indian heritage and accepted the white
man's way for their own survival. There are some Wampanoag who do not
wish it known they are Indian for social or economic reasons.
What happened to those Wampanoags who chose to
remain and live among the early settlers? What kind of existence did
they live as "civilized" people? True, living was not as complex as
life today, but they dealt with the confusion and the change. Honesty,
trust, concern, pride, and politics wove themselves in and out of their
[the Wampanoags'] daily living. Hence, he was termed crafty, cunning,
rapacious, and dirty.
History wants us to believe that the Indian was a
savage, illiterate, uncivilized animal. A history that was written by
an organized, disciplined people, to expose us as an unorganized and
undisciplined entity. Two distinctly different cultures met. One
thought they must control life; the other believed life was to be
enjoyed, because nature decreed it. Let us remember, the Indian is and
was just as human as the white man. The Indian feels pain, gets hurt,
and becomes defensive, has dreams, bears tragedy and failure, suffers
from loneliness, needs to cry as well as laugh. He, too, is often
The white man in the presence of the Indian is
still mystified by his uncanny ability to make him feel uncomfortable.
This may be the image the white man has created of the Indian; his
"savageness" has boomeranged and isn't a mystery; it is fear; fear of
the Indian's temperament!
Even before the
Pilgrims landed it was common practice for explorers to capture
Indians, take them to Europe and sell them as slaves for 220 shillings
apiece.High on a hill, overlooking the famed Plymouth Rock,
stands the statue of our great Sachem, Massasoit. Massasoit has stood
there many years in silence. We the descendants of this great Sachem
have been a silent people. The necessity of making a living in this
materialistic society of the white man caused us to be silent. Today, I
and many of my people are choosing to face the truth. We ARE Indians!
Although time has drained our culture, and our
language is almost extinct, we the Wampanoags still walk the lands of
Massachusetts. We may be fragmented, we may be confused. Many years
have passed since we have been a people together. Our lands were
invaded. We fought as hard to keep our land as you the whites did to
take our land away from us. We were conquered, we became the American
prisoners of war in many cases, and wards of the United States
Government, until only recently.
Our spirit refuses to die. Yesterday we walked the
woodland paths and sandy trails. Today we must walk the macadam
highways and roads. We are uniting We're standing not in our wigwams
but in your concrete tent. We stand tall and proud, and before too many
moons pass we'll right the wrongs we have allowed to happen to us.
We forfeited our country. Our lands have fallen
into the hands of the aggressor. We have allowed the white man to keep
us on our knees. What has happened cannot be changed, but today we must
work towards a more humane America, a more Indian America, where men
and nature once again are important; where the Indian values of honor,
truth, and brotherhood prevail.
You the white man are celebrating an anniversary.
We the Wampanoags will help you celebrate in the concept of a
beginning. It was the beginning of a new life for the Pilgrims. Now,
350 years later it is a beginning of a new determination for the
original American: the American Indian.
There are some factors concerning the Wampanoags
and other Indians across this vast nation. We now have 350 years of
experience living amongst the white man. We can now speak his language.
We can now think as a white man thinks. We can now compete with him for
the top jobs. We're being heard; we are now being listened to. The
important point is that along with these necessities of everyday
living, we still have the spirit, we still have the unique culture, we
still have the will and, most important of all, the determination to
remain as Indians. We are determined, and our presence here this
evening is living testimony that this is only the beginning of the
American Indian, particularly the Wampanoag, to regain the position in
this country that is rightfully ours.