Native Americans get a stronger voice in the Mayflower story

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Native Americans get a stronger voice in the Mayflower story
Cannupa Hanska Luger, who is leading a public art project in Plymouth, England, for the Mayflower commemorations, at his studio in Glorieta, N.M., Jan. 20, 2020. “The narrative of the romantic Indian on the plain with buckskin and feathers is not what we’re trying to present — and it’s what I’ve experienced every time I’ve come to Europe,” said Luger. Ramsay de Give/The New York Times.

by Farah Nayeri

LONDON (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- In 1970, Native American leader Wamsutta Frank James was asked to give a speech at a state dinner in Plymouth, Massachusetts. It had been 350 years since the arrival of the Mayflower, and James, a member of the Wampanoag tribe that has inhabited what is now Massachusetts for 12,000 years, was invited to participate in the commemorations.

“This is a time of celebration for you — celebrating an anniversary of a beginning for the white man in America,” his speech began. “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.”

But that speech was never delivered. The event’s organizers had asked to see an advance copy and proposed an alternative text. James chose not to participate. He led a protest near Plymouth Rock instead.

Fifty years have passed, and commemorations for the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower crossing are approaching. This time, Native Americans — particularly the Wampanoag Nation — are actively shaping the programming of events in the United States and Britain.

The American commemorations, known as Plymouth 400, run from April through November. Events include a Wampanoag Ancestors Walk led by tribe members and a conference on indigenous history with a focus on the colonization that Native Americans experienced.

What distinguishes the programs is that the Mayflower is a more politically charged subject on one side of the Atlantic than it is on the other. In the United States, generations of schoolchildren have learned that the Pilgrims who arrived on the Mayflower signed treaties with Native Americans and celebrated the first Thanksgiving with them — a sugarcoated version of events that many historians consider a misrepresentation. In Britain, the Mayflower is barely mentioned in the school curriculum.

“In the United States, I’m having to unravel the misconceptions that are put out there in history,” said Paula Peters, a member of the Wampanoag tribe who is on the advisory committee for the American and British events and working on an exhibition of Native American belts as part of the British commemorations. “There is the myth of the Thanksgiving holiday that brings to mind for just about everybody the idea that Native Americans welcomed the Pilgrims.”

“In England, they don’t teach the Mayflower story,” Peters added. “It’s kind of like a fresh, clean slate.”

Modern historians say the land that in 1620 became the first English settlement in what is now Massachusetts was previously home to a Native American population that was decimated by diseases brought over by earlier European colonists. The Pilgrims who arrived on the Mayflower imported new diseases and occupied Wampanoag land.

The British arm of the commemorations, known as Mayflower 400, is a rich cultural program featuring public artworks, performances and exhibitions around England, and has been put together in collaboration with members of the Wampanoag Nation.

The program will have a strong visual component. “Settlement,” a monthlong series of displays and performances by Native American artists, will be held in a park in Plymouth, England, where the Mayflower set sail.

“The narrative of the romantic Indian on the plain with buckskin and feathers is not what we’re trying to present — and it’s what I’ve experienced every time I’ve come to Europe,” said artist Cannupa Hanska Luger, who is leading the “Settlement” project. “There’s a prevailing notion of us trapped in an 18th-century or 19th-century experience, and then also limited to just a single vision of what that would be.”

Luger said he had learned more about the Mayflower from his research for the British project than he had growing up in the United States, where the version of history taught in school was “super abrasive, and there is a silencing.”

“In the U.K., there is a slate that is only lightly dusted,” he said by telephone from New Mexico, where he lives. “It’s a lot easier to have this conversation there than try to get people to forget what they’ve been taught here.”

Part of the exhibition segment is “Mayflower 400: Legend and Legacy,” a selection of objects, images and ideas that tells the story of the ship’s passengers but also presents the Native American perspective on English colonization. It will be held at The Box, a new $52 million arts complex in Plymouth.

A parallel touring exhibition of Native American shell belts, “Wampum: Stories and Shells from Native America,” will have as its centerpiece a newly made belt created by the Wampanoag in Massachusetts, shown alongside four belts from the British Museum collection that are believed to date from the 18th century, if not earlier. Created with tiny cylindrical beads (“wampum”) made from fragments of clam shells, these geometrically patterned belts served as records of treaties among tribes.

“It is important that groups like the Wampanoag are getting more involved in bringing their side of the story to this,” said Ian Taylor, a project curator at the British Museum, as he pointed to the four belts, mounted on boards, in a museum conservation lab. “Wampum is quite famous, but it has always been seen from a very European, settler perspective.”

A performance at the Theater Royal Plymouth, “This Land,” will combine the Pilgrim and Wampanoag narratives around the Mayflower with a cast of 150 people, 30 of them Wampanoag members.

Mandy Precious, Theatre Royal Plymouth’s director of engagement and learning, said she had traveled regularly to the United States to secure Native American participation. She recalled that at her first meeting with a dozen or so Wampanoag members, “they kind of went, ‘How do we know that we can trust you?’”

Precious said she explained the theater’s approach by pointing to the cancellation of a newly commissioned play about the military, after members of the armed forces read the script and “hated it.”

“This is the very first time that their story is being told in the way that they want to tell it,” Precious said.

But Luger, the visual artist, said that the story is still not being told in the United States the way Native Americans want it to be — particularly not in primary schools, where myths about the Mayflower are still taught, he said.

Luger, who grew up on a reservation in North Dakota, said the Mayflower was, to him, “traumatic, because 90 percent of my population was wiped out.” He said he was participating in the anniversary events not “because I’m excited and want to commemorate,” but because “if we don’t tell that story, then what fills its place?”

“It’s important that these stories be told,” he said, “so that future generations aren’t limited by the romantic and mythical experience that I was educated in.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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