Thanksgiving tribe seeks U.S. status

Massachusetts Indians whose ancestors sat with the Pilgrims want self-government and federal aid as land development imperils their culture

By Ron DePasquale, Special to the Tribune
Published November 24, 2005

Their ancestors appear in every schoolchild's history book as the peaceful guests of the Pilgrims on the first Thanksgiving.

Yet Mashpee Wampanoag leaders say that their place in history does nothing for them now. Their ancient culture remains threatened and their 31-year-old struggle to gain federal recognition as a tribe continues.

And as tribal members flee skyrocketing real estate prices in the Cape Cod town of Mashpee, see their homes seized for back taxes or become homeless, the tribe says that recognition would bring not only self-government but also sorely needed housing funds. The wait is to end soon. A federal judge has ruled that the Bureau of Indian Affairs must make a decision this spring.

"We deserve the recognition," said Chief Vernon "Silent Drum" Lopez. "Why should all these other tribes be recognized and not the ones that made first contact? They forgot us, and we want to be known."

The onset of Thanksgiving brings a tinge of regret for the Mashpee Wampanoag, tribal Chairman Glenn Marshall said. Native Americans see no reason to celebrate the tribe's role as welcoming the "interlopers," he said.

"Other tribes look at us and say, `What were you thinking?'" Marshall said. "Our sachem [chief] at the time, Massasoit, believed in peace. He wanted a peaceful coexistence."

"East Coast tribes still live in a communal setting and have a traditional cultural relationship, but now they have to prove that [cultural traditions] continued throughout these unfortunate years of adverse policies and forced assimilation," said Jacqueline Johnson, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians. "For them it's a really difficult federal recognition process that takes a lot of financial resources."

The process for federal recognition that has ensnared the Mashpee Wampanoag was criticized as too lengthy and inconsistent in 2002 by the congressional agency then known as the General Accounting Office. Proving a continuous, separate existence involves thousands of historical and genealogical documents and is even more complex for East Coast tribes who have lived among whites since the 1600s.

Not always at peace

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