Chairwoman Ferretti and Medicine Man Troy Currence share their views in this article by Emily Clark…Pilgrims who sought freedom, denied same to Wampanoag

November 27, 2020


LYMOUTH – Troy Currence, the Herring Pond Wampanoag medicine man, weighed a paradox in his head for likely the millionth time as he led the way to a memorial in Bourne.

A metal plaque attached to a large rock announces it as the site of “the first meeting house for Indians” and one of the first Herring Pond Wampanoag burial grounds.

About 400 years ago, a mysterious plague struck Patuxet, renamed Plymouth by the Pilgrims, killing and displacing the indigenous people who lived there, Currence said. The members of the tribe who survived were the ones who met the Pilgrims when they arrived in Patuxet.

The traditional Thanksgiving story tells of a friendship between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag, who helped the European settlers to survive. But for many Wampanoag, Currence said of his paradox, Thanksgiving marks the attempted obliteration and annihilation of their people and culture, as the children of the Pilgrims who sought land, independence and religious freedom denied those rights to the Wampanoag.TWEETFACEBOOKTroy Currence, Herring Pond Wampanoag medicine man

Our Native people saw people as humans. We never looked at someone and made judgments based on religion or color of skin or how much money they had.

On a bitingly coldday earlier this monthbright white sunlight darted through the leaves as Currence posed next to the Burial Hill memorial, his eyes the color of asphalt in this light, shadows obscuring his features. The hill above where he stands is where the bones of his ancestors lie.

His ancestry is undeniable. When he was 11 years old, a stranger on a street approached him and declared that she knew who he was: a 48-year-old Indian, Currence said. 

In those days, he dreamed of basketball stardom and shirked references to his Wampanoag identity. But the chance encounter with the woman stayed with him as he grew into an adult and thought about his heritage. That led to his embrace of the healing power of The Creator as his great-great-grandparents had done. They were called Pow-Wows in those days – a Native American term for medicine people – and Currence has not one but two of them on both sides of his family tree.    

They were all there in this and other burial grounds across the region, descendants of the original Wampanoag who interacted with the Pilgrims — some who died of the disease 400 years ago.

Melissa Ferretti, Herring Pond Wampanoag Tribe chairlady, emphasized that the tribe was not wiped out by the disease as some historical accounts claim. Tribe members typically moved inland during the winter, so many had escaped the plague, she said, while others survived it. The Patuxet, now Herring Pond Wampanoag, were among those who fled what later became the plantation, hiding out on the borders of the English settlement where the Pilgrims had secured a toehold in Patuxet, Ferretti says.

Herring Pond Wampanoag Tribe Chairlady Melissa Ferretti says "1620 was a pivotal moment that ravaged the lives of all Native Americans.”
Herring Pond Wampanoag Tribe Chairlady Melissa Ferretti says “1620 was a pivotal moment that ravaged the lives of all Native Americans.”

And then there is the fact that the descendants of the Pilgrims, about half of whom were Puritans, fled religious persecution in England but then denied religious freedom to the Wampanoag. The tribespeople were eventually forced to convert to Christianity and attend church. Historical documents reveal that outraged colonists charged Native Americans with the crime of failing to attend church.

The Wampanoag culture, by contrast, was more accepting and nonjudgmental, Currence says.

“Our Native people saw people as humans,” he said. “We never looked at someone and made judgments based on religion or color of skin or how much money they had.”

By the time the Pilgrims arrived in 1620, Currence said, the Wampanoag and other Native American tribes had already interacted with European explorers and traders for many years.

Related: A man without a tribe: the true story of Squanto

“We had a lot of contact with French, English and Viking people over the years coming ashore and leaving, but this time when people showed up, they came with women and children. It was different,” he said.

Character is what mattered to his people, Currence said, not skin color.

“It was about a person’s heart,” he said.

Treaties between the Wampanoag and English settlers were equally fraught, Currence said. Wampanoag signed on to an agreement with the Pilgrims granting them the right to use the land, not to own it, he said.

Deeds written in subsequent years illustrate how lands passed from Native to English hands. During the time of Gov. Josiah Winslow – son of Pilgrim Edward Winslow — who served as governor of Plymouth Colony from 1673 to 1680, land the Wampanoag had lived on for thousands of years was taken by the colonists. When Winslow was legally challenged, he moved the goalposts with legislation that allowed the takeover of land to continue.

Tensions boiled over

Ferretti points to the Earl Report, an 1861 state report that documented the existence of various tribes living in the state, including the Herring Pond Wampanoag ancestors. The Wampanoag Nation, or People of the First Light, included many tribes in what is now Southern Massachusetts 400 years ago, she said. By 1861, the Wampanoag Nation was much diminished, in part because of policies of forced assimilation that robbed the Wampanoag and other indigenous people of their language and their culture. 

“I want to note that 1620 didn’t just affect us, it affected the entire Wampanoag Nation of tribes and other tribes in Massachusetts, and in time, all Native Americans across the country,” Ferretti said. “As a tribal leader, I realize this isn’t just about the Herring Pond Wampanoag, 1620 was a pivotal moment that ravaged the lives of all Native Americans.”

The traditional American narrative claims the Wampanoag and Pilgrims saw the expedience of saving one another, Ferretti said. However, many Wampanoag view this alleged peace as the beginning of the end of their culture and Native cultures and peoples across the country.TWEETFACEBOOKTroy Currence, Herring Pond Wampanoag medicine man

I hope this year has shown all of us as human beings how important each of us is in the circle of life and what’s really important, to love and respect each other.

The tension between the westward spread of other European colonists — who continued to arrive year after year —  and Wampanoag tribes culminated in the 1670s with King Philip’s War. But whispers of the tensions surfaced after the Pilgrims’ arrived, as documented in Gov. William Bradford’s writings and foreshadowed a grim future for the indigenous people.

The Pilgrim leader, who kept a detailed diary, referred to Massasoit, Great Sachem of the Wampanoag Nation, as a “friend” and other members of the Wampanoag and other tribes as “savages,” again and again, said Ferretti

She and other Wampanoag question the duality of Bradford’s writing and his persistent view of indigenous people as savages, even after more than 10 years of living among them.

In the end, that prevailing whisper of “savage” eclipsed what had come before. For the Europeans, these Native Americans, with their lack of written language and monotheism, were inferior to their European counterparts. The Wampanoag stance of appointing female leaders and notions of balance between what is given to the land and what is taken moved out of step with the European notions of white male superiority and domination of land and people, Ferretti said.

In the end, the history of Patuxet is fraught with the paradox and hypocrisy that followed what the European Americans referred to as 50 years of peace, she said.

For Currence and Ferretti, the children of the people who fled religious persecution and the generations that followed did to the Native Americans what had been done to the Pilgrims in England.

“It wasn’t so much for the generation of the Pilgrims but the ones that followed where things got difficult,” Currence said. “I get why people celebrate Thanksgiving for being with friends and family, especially after what they’ve been through in 2020.

“Thanksgiving to us was every day,” he said. “We give thanks when we rise from sleep. We gave thanks for the food, the animals we hunted for giving their lives to nurture our bodies; we have to give thanks to our elders and loved ones. And we always have to give thanks to the Ultimate Being, the great mystery, the supreme maker, creator.

“I hope this year has shown all of us as human beings how important each of us is in the circle of life and what’s really important, to love and respect each other.”