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A Look at the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum’s Wampanoag Exhibition

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by Rebecca Alvin

Top Image: Photo: Steven Peters, SmokeSygnals

In the past few months Native Americans have been in the news a lot. In July 2020 a District Court judge ordered the temporary shutdown of the Dakota Access Pipeline pending environmental review after several years of protest going back to the Obama presidency. Around the same time, the Supreme Court ruled that about a third of Oklahoma is actually tribal land, divided amongst several tribes per a treaty that had been violated over 150 years ago. And recently the Washington Redskins football team has said it is planning to finally take seriously complaints about its team name, which is an offensive slur against Native Americans. While we’re nowhere near the kind of reconciliation and reparations needed, it feels like we’re in an important moment for the rights of indigenous people in America.

It seems symbolic that this is coming in 2020, at the same time as we commemorate the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower’s arrival in the so-called “New World.” It’s things like that—the very language we use to describe those events, the lens through which we collectively look at it, whether or own ancestors came here on the Mayflower or not—these are the elements that a new exhibition at the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum address by presenting an alternative perspective to the dominate one, that of the Wampanoag.

Our Story replaces the Museum’s former exhibit, created in 1971, which depicted the events of 1620 very narrowly, with no regard for the complexity of the interactions between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag and historically inaccurate murals that did little to foster understanding about what truly happened and the multiple perspectives that exist about it. Our Story is meant to be a permanent exhibition, not just for the Provincetown 400 commemoration. It was designed by a Mashpee-based creative agency SmokeSygnals, owned and run by mother and son, Paula and Steven Peters, members of the Wampanoag Tribe.

When you enter the exhibition space, you are greeted by a sign welcoming you to Our Story, subtitled “The complicated relationship of the Indigenous Wampanoag and the Mayflower Pilgrims,” an apt description of what you’re about to grapple with in this exhibition that includes artifacts, interactive touchscreens, video reenactments, and large panels describing key events of the story. But it doesn’t just begin with the 1620 arrival of the Pilgrims. Our Story offers greater context by beginning more than a decade earlier and detailing the events leading up to it so that by the time the Pilgrims arrive, we understand how the Wampanoag people felt about European “visitors” who had by then proven themselves untrustworthy, routinely kidnapping Native Americans and selling them into slavery. The impact of such horrific and tragic practices went beyond the specific individuals kidnapped, traumatizing whole families and communities by taking from them their best warriors, best hunters and providers, their leaders, fathers, sons, and husbands.

Photo: Rebecca M. Alvin

Looking at the exhibition’s goals of both righting the wrongs of the previous permanent exhibition and presenting greater context around the interactions that took place in 1620, Our Story is a success because it subverts the dominant narrative by immediately adopting the perspective of the indigenous people already here when the Pilgrims arrived. Simply by beginning here instead of in Europe, where the story usually begins, we are placed in the shoes of the first Americans and identify with them as fellow Americans whose land was invaded, rather than identifying with European interlopers. And so from that standpoint, we enter the exhibition and learn the deeper history of our nation. We can’t help asking ourselves how things might have been different if the Pilgrims and the settlers and explorers that came before them had been open-minded enough to learn from the Native Americans, instead of insisting on bringing with them the very ideas and practices that made them want to leave Europe in the first place. The intolerance and self-righteousness of the Pilgrims prevented two cultures from communicating and growing.

At the same time, Our Story explores why that happened and how both the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims found each other curious and even incorrect. One element of this cultural divide that is particularly interesting is the role of women in their respective societies. While in the Wampanoag world, women could be and were leaders of their communities and tribes, for the Pilgrims, such a notion was baffling. One section of the exhibition details how significant this was when Pilgrims needed to deal with female Wampanoag leaders such as Awashonks, Chief of the nearby Sakonnet tribe. They simply could not wrap their heads around such a notion and instead negotiated with male leaders for access to land and resources those male leaders did not have any domain over rather than speaking respectfully and seriously with Awashonks.

The story is a tragic one but it adds much needed depth to the story of the Pilgrims’ arrival in America, adding many details and names and concepts that visitors to the Provincetown Museum may find new and even challenging to their long-held beliefs about what happened 400 years ago. It is by no means the end of the conversation. It is the beginning of a challenge to let go of our willful ignorance and open our eyes to difficult truths that we must face head on in order to overcome them and right the wrongs just as the Museum has corrected its own past mistakes.

Our Story: The Early Days of the Wampanoag Tribe and the Pilgrims Who Followed is on view as a permanent exhibition at the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum, 1 High Pole Hill Rd., Provincetown. For more information and for details on the Museum’s COVID-19 related policies and procedures for timed tickets, etc., call 508.487.1310 or visit pilgrim-monument.org.

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