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Native American Perspective: Fast Turtle, Wampanoag Tribe Member
Experience the events of 1621 through the eyes of a Wampanoag warrior counselor.
1–2, 3–5, 6–8, 9–12
As part of Scholastic's The First Thanksgiving student activity, we traveled back to 1621, the year of the first Thanksgiving feast celebrated by the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians. The following is a conversation held with Russell M. Peters (1929-2002), a Mashpee Wampanoag leader, Native American rights advocate, and author from Brookline, Massachusetts. During the interview, Mr. Peters answered questions as a Wampanoag Indian in 1621, using his Wampanoag name, "Fast Turtle." Below are his answers to questions from students.
Fast Turtle is a Wampanoag who lives in Massipee, the area just west of Plimoth. He has a wife and two children. When he was a boy, Fast Turtle was chosen and trained to be a pniese (pa-NEES), a special kind of warrior counselor.
Each pniese is selected for his spiritual power, physical strength, courage, and wisdom. They advise the chief, or sachem (SAY-chum), and help settle differences with other communities.
Fast Turtle has just returned from the three-day feast in Plimoth. He and the sachem Chief Massasoit were among the 90 Wampanoag who joined the celebration.
Relationships With the Pilgrims
What did you think of the Pilgrims when they first arrived?
When the Mayflower came, first to the outer arm of the Cape and then into Plimoth, we looked on them with apprehension and great curiosity. It was much larger than our biggest canoe. As they landed, they brought a lot of baggage with them and seemed like they were here to stay. We knew that there would be great changes in the way we would live.
Had you ever seen a boat as large as the Mayflower before?
Wampanoags have seen large boats before the Mayflower. Explorers like Verrazzano and Cabot looked around Wampanoag territory. The Vikings from the north frequently sailed into the area. European fishermen from Spain, Portugal, France, and Ireland fished for codfish off our coast years before the Pilgrims came in 1620.
How did you speak with the Pilgrims? Did you speak English or did they speak your language?
Good question. Indians spoke a dialect of the Algonquin language. A few spoke some English even before the Pilgrims landed at Plimoth in 1620. They learned from the English fishermen who fished for cod. Samoset was an Indian who said "Welcome, Englishmen," much to the surprise of Miles Standish and William Bradford. Squanto, a Wampanoag, also spoke English, which he learned when he was in England. When he returned, Squanto served as an interpreter between the English colonists and the Wampanoag people. Eventually, most of the Wampanoags did learn to speak English.
Who were some of the Native Americans who spoke English with the Pilgrims?
Samoset greeted the Pilgrims in English in March of 1621. He strode into the Pilgrims compound and said, "Welcome, Englishmen." The surprised and somewhat apprehensive Standish and Bradford muttered back, "Welcome." They wanted to know where he learned English words, and he told them that he learned a few English words from fishermen who came to the area periodically.
Squanto, a Wampanoag, also spoke English, which he learned when merchants took him to England before 1620. He was an interpreter for the Massasoit and the English colonists. He was particularly helpful to the colonists, and the other Wampanoags were suspicious of Squanto's association with the Englishmen. He died a premature and mysterious death.
Did you ever feel at any time that the Pilgrims were your friends? If you did, when did your feelings change?
Yes, in the beginning there was a fair exchange of good deeds between the Wampanoags and the Pilgrims. During the first harsh winter over half of their number died of cold, malnutrition, and other diseases. During the spring of 1621, the Wampanoags were very helpful in teaching the English to adjust to the climate, the environment around them, and for this the English were grateful. They met the Massasoit Osamequin, who provided protection and help during the next few years.
As the numbers of English increased and the settlements grew, the English began to make demands on the Wampanoags. Attempts were made to make English the language to be spoken. Plimoth Colony extended their court jurisdiction over the Wampanoag people. Missionaries attempted to convert the Wampanoags from their religion to Christianity. These things were done in the interest of improving the Wampanoag mind and spirit, but in the process it did much harm to the native culture and spirituality.
What did the Pilgrims think of you?
The English had been told that the inhabitants of the New World were savages, so they were afraid of the Wampanoags. An Indian named Samoset came into the new village in the spring of 1621 and began a friendship with the Pilgrims. Samoset introduced Miles Standish and William Bradford, Europeans, to the Wampanoag leaders and a friendship was made that lasted for more than 50 years.
What kinds of diseases did the Pilgrims expose the Wampanoag to?
When the Pilgrims landed in 1620, they brought diseases like smallpox and diphtheria. Some English purposely distributed diseased blankets to the unsuspecting Wampanoags, thus wiping out entire villages. Eventually the Wampanoag built up a tolerance for some of these diseases and were able to withstand the terrible effects of European diseases.
Did the Pilgrims turn against you because you had different-colored skin?
The color of their skin did point out the differences. The language differences prevented good communication between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags. It was obvious from the beginning of the Pilgrim–Wampanoag relationship that there was a complete lack of understanding and mutual respect. The English had been told that the Wampanoag people were savages and needed the help of the white man to become civilized.
What were some of the religious differences between Natives and Pilgrims?
The Pilgrims were sometimes called Puritans, a group that had very strong religious beliefs. They were very serious and sanctimonious and felt that the Wampanoags should practice the Puritans' religion, Christianity, and observe their rules of conduct. Keep in mind that these were the same people who were escaping religious persecution in Holland and England.
Can you tell me what effect John Elliot's work had on the Native Americans of New England?
John Elliot was an early missionary who made a valiant effort to Christianize native people. He did not recognize that the Native Americans had their own religion and proceeded to convert them. Praying Indian towns were established in Natick, Roxbury, Mashpee, Martha's Vineyard, and Herring Pond. John Elliot attempted to learn the Algonquin language, and he translated the Bible into that language. The native people were fascinated with the concept of praying and preaching. To them, the ceremony and ritual of the service was interesting, even though they did not understand it. As the English settlements expanded, the Christian praying villages were used as a refuge for Indians who were displaced by the new settlers. When the so-called King Philip's War took place, John Elliot's praying Indian village was evacuated and the Natick Indians were banished to a place called Deer Island, where many of them died over the winter.
What kinds of weapons did the Pilgrims bring? What kind of weapons did the Native Americans have?
When the Pilgrims landed in Plimoth, the military leader was a man named Miles Standish. He and most of the men carried muskets, which were used for hunting and protection of the village. The Wampanoags had no such weapons and were deathly afraid of the white man's musket. We called it a thunderbolt that could kill. The Pilgrims carried a strange book, their Bible, as they marched to church every day. Each was a weapon in its own way, because the Pilgrims wanted the Wampanoags to embrace the Christian religion and to discard their own religion.
The Wampanoags had bows and arrows and spears, which were used for hunting as well as for protection of their territory. In addition, they had tomahawks made of stone and knives made of shells or sharp shale.
Were there ever any confrontations between the white settlers and the Native Americans? If so, what were they?
The Wampanoags had many disagreements with the white man, primarily over land issues. At first the Pilgrims were friendly with the Wampanoags, because they helped them learn the environment and how to survive on the land. As the settlers moved in, they often settled on traditional or ceremonial land of the Wampanoags, which was often hotly disputed. Eventually this led to wars between the English and the Indian tribes around them.
Knowing what you know today about how the Native Americans were sent to reservations, do you wish that your ancestors had never welcomed the Pilgrims?
Life was good before the English came. I am only sorry that we could not share the bounties of this land in a more equal way. In our culture we feel that no one owns the land. The earth belongs to all of us and we are to take care of Mother Earth. It is obvious that the settlers were after land — our land. We now have very little of our land left.
The 1621 Thanksgiving Feast
Tell us about the first Thanksgiving.
In 1621, the Wampanoags were just getting to know the Pilgrims. The English were still learning how to cope with the weather and harsh living conditions. The native people showed the Pilgrims how to gather food, how to fish and hunt. They told them what was good to eat and what not to eat. For those that survived the first harsh winter, we had admiration and helped them to adjust to the new land.
When the Wampanoags helped the Pilgrims bring in their first crop in the new world, there was a great feast during that harvest time. According to the Pilgrims, about 90 Wampanoags crashed the party and brought with them all sorts of delicacies. The Wampanoags usually celebrated their harvests with food and rejoicing. They brought venison (deer meat), wild turkey, rabbit, woodchuck, lobster, clams, mussels, potatoes, sea bass, bluefish, and many other delicious foods. Wampanoags also brought corn, beans, and squash to the feast, and even showed the Pilgrims how to cook the food. The Pilgrims were very appreciative of the gifts, and the 90 Wampanoags who crashed the party had a wonderful time.
When the first Thanksgiving was celebrated, all of the bounties of the land and the sea were made a part of this celebration. The Pilgrims got on their knees, closed their eyes, and thanked their God in their own way. They remained silent for some time, then opened a book and spoke strange things. The Wampanoags thanked the Great Spirit for the all of the bounties and blessings of food and drink that he bestowed upon them.
This became an annual tradition that Americans call Thanksgiving Day.
What was your favorite dish at the first Thanksgiving?
My favorite food at the feast was wild turkey and lobster. I also liked the new English dish they called "Indian Pudding."
Did the Wampanoag people eat turkey before the arrival of the Pilgrims?
Wampanoags ate wild turkey long before the English came to Plimoth Colony. In fact, we introduced the delicious bird to the English on the first celebration held in 1621.
Did the Pilgrims and Native Americans eat with forks and knives like we do?
The Pilgrims ate with their hands and little short tools with which they shoveled food into their mouths. They also used a cloth to wipe their face even as they ate. It was quite strange behavior. The Wampanoags used their hands and fingers to eat their food. We used the Pilgrims' cups to drink water. What a neat way to drink.
Did Hobbamock go to the harvest feast?
Hobbamock was a guide for the Pilgrims when they explored places to settle the new people that were coming to the colony. At the celebration, about 90 Wampanoags joined in the feast, and I believe that Hobbamock was included in the group.
Did you have to travel far to participate in the first Thanksgiving?
I traveled just down the beach from Manomet to Plimoth for the first celebration of the harvest. It took me one hour to get there.
What other activities occurred at the Thanksgiving feast besides eating?
The Wampanoags engaged in games of skill, such as lacrosse and football, but were unable to entice the English to join in the games.
What did you wear to the feast?
I wore my finest deerskin shirt and leggings. The shirt was decorated with the purple shells from the quahog that we got from Popponesset Bay.
Who were the Wampanoags?
The Wampanoag people were Eastern Woodland people who spoke a dialect of the Algonquin language. While many of the words are similar, there are dialectal differences. The tribes are located from Canada to South Carolina and west to Wisconsin. We are hunters and gatherers and actually cultivated crops such as corn, squash, and beans. We lived close to the ocean and relied heavily on fish and game for our sustenance. We were a friendly people and enjoyed good relations with the other tribes that lived near us. Some of these tribes are the Massachusetts, the Punkapogs, the Narragansett, and the Nipmuck tribes.
The Wampanoags were here thousands of years before the Pilgrims arrived in Plimoth. When the Pilgrims landed in Plimoth, they landed in the midst of Wampanoag territory and spread their settlements throughout the area. Today, there are still Wampanoag people who live on their land in Mashpee, Gay Head, and other areas in southeastern Massachusetts.
How did the Wampanoag migrate to North America?
I do not know the migration path that the tribes in the Northeast used. However, there is evidence that we have been here for more than 10,000 years.
What does the word Wampanoag mean in English?
Wampanoag means "land where the sun comes up first." We are called "People of the First Light" because we see the sun first.
How many people were in your tribe?
There were more than 5,000 Wampanoag people. Many of our people died from disease brought over by the white man. Later the Wampanoags developed immunity to most of those diseases.
What is it like belonging to a tribal group?
I am very proud to be a Wampanoag. Where I live in Massipee, I can hunt and fish and live in harmony with Mother Earth. We have the ocean, bays, rivers, and lakes, which are filled with fish. My family has a good home and we are happy with our Wampanoag way of life.
What are some the names of your neighboring tribes?
To the west of us are the Narragansett tribe and the Pequot tribe. To the north are the Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, and the Malisite tribes. To the northwest are the Nipmuck and the Mohawk tribes. And to the northeast are the Mohegan, Schaghticoke, Malaseet, and Mic Mac. We are all part of the Algonquin-language group, but speak different dialects of that language.
How did the Wampanoags travel around?
The Wampanoag people traveled mostly by foot. They moved from their winter homes, which were well inland, to a place where they planted their crops in the early spring. After a month or so at the fields, they packed up and moved closer to the ocean, where they caught herring, clams, oysters, and lobster.
Sometimes they had clambakes for the entire tribe during the warm days of summer. They played games, swam in the ocean, and rejuvenated themselves after the long hard winter. In the fall at harvest time, they retraced their steps and harvested their crops and prepared for the winter. Finally, they moved back to their winter place to complete the cycle.
Did the Wampanoags have horses in their villages?
The Wampanoags did not have horses before the Europeans came to these shores.
What is your chief's name?
My chief's name is Osamequin. Osamequin means "Yellow Feather." The Pilgrims call him Massasoit. Massasoit is the Wampanoag word for sachem, or chief. He is the Grand Sachem of the Wampanoag people.
Who was the greatest chief of all times?
The greatest Wampanoag chief was Osamequin.
What was the most popular Indian name?
A popular Indian name was Tisquantum, from which the name Squanto derived.
How many Indian tribes are there in all?
There are more than 500 federally recognized Indian tribes in the United States, and many more that do not have treaties with the United States. In New England, where the Wampanoag people live, there are 15 Indian tribes. Most of them have land near the ocean.
How did the Wampanoag people communicate without having television, radio, or computers?
The Wampanoag people had a communication system that is still used today. They relied on the spoken word and symbols that told a story and sometimes recorded history. Sometimes they used drums to send messages to tribe members who were some distance away. Smoke signals were also used. The young men were trained in running long distances. The training gave them endurance and strength to carry messages from one place to another.
It is hard to imagine a world without TV, radio, and computers, but the Wampanoag children did just fine without them. They hunted and fished, built wigwams and canoes. They did things that were necessary for survival.
What group of people were the first to make contact with the Wampanoags?
The first foreign people to come visit my people were the Viking explorers. That is when we first saw metal weapons and tools. The size of their boats just blew our minds. It was a very memorable experience.
Daily Needs of the Wampanoag
What are the natural resources that you used to help meet your basic needs?
The Wampanoag people were close to the earth and were able to get food and clothing from animals that they hunted. Wampanoags grew vegetables, such as corn, beans, and squash. These vegetables were called the "Three Sisters." The Wampanoags also used herbs and roots for medicines and preservatives for food. Their shelter was made of cedar saplings and bark. This housing was called a wetu. It was quite comfortable, even in the winter. The cooking fire was inside, and the smoke was able to get out through a hole in the roof.
How did the Wampanoags keep themselves clean? Where did you bathe?
They used leaves or grass or other organic material to clean themselves after going to the bathroom. They took showers when it rained, and bathed in ponds and pools almost every season, except during the extreme cold winter months. Wampanoag people were very clean. They swam in the warm weather and went to the sweat lodge in the cold weather.
How did you brush your teeth?
We brushed our teeth with mint leaves and short pine bristles. The mint leaves a refreshing taste in the mouth.
How did you get your water?
Wampanoags had a plentiful source of water. Some came from underground springs, but our main source of water was the rivers and lakes in the Massipee area.
Can you tell us about your sleeping habits?
I am in the habit of going to bed when the sun goes down. I awake at sunrise and love to see the sun rise over the ocean. Morning is special to me.
How were sick people cared for? What happened to people who became really ill?
Every tribe had a medicine man or medicine woman who was familiar with remedies for almost every kind of illness. The Wampanoags also had a sweat lodge which was used when illness required it.
Did Wampanoag children receive their education in a formal school-type atmosphere? Was education different for boys than girls?
We did not have school in the same way you have school. We had no TV, computers, visual aids, radios, or school buses. Before the English came to these shores, Wampanoag children learned how to do things by watching their parents or tribal elders. The village was the classroom, and the extended family was the teacher.
The young girls learned from following their mothers, aunts, and elders of the community. They watched their mothers gather wood, light fires, and cook the food for the family. They also learned how to stretch and tan leather for clothing and also how to sew. They learned how to gather food and berries, plant crops, tan leather from animal skins, make a wigwam, and cook. The learning sometimes took long hours and over many years before the girls grew into young women and had their own families.
Young boys learned at the side of their fathers, uncles, and tribal elders. The adults taught us about the seasons, what animals were good, where the fish were located and how to catch them. We became proficient with the bow and arrow and spear and learned to run long distances. For boys, our jobs were to be good hunters, fisherman, and protectors of the Wampanoag territory.
So the answer to your question is that the Wampanoag lived in a different environment that called for a drastically different way of learning what was necessary to survive. As kids, we played games that developed our skills and body coordination. We also learned endurance so that we could travel long distances in preparation for future endeavors.
Do Wampanoag girls and boys help with the corn planting?
Young girls and boys are taught how to gather rocks and sit in the corn watch to drive away birds and animals that get into the garden to steal the seeds. A corn watch is a tower erected near the cornfields.
What games did Wampanoag girls and boys play?
Early on, both boys and girls played many games that developed their hand and eye coordination, so they could develop other skills as they grew older. Some of the games were the ring and pin game, lacrosse, football, swimming games, and long-distance running races. All of these games were used to develop endurance, accuracy, and precision.
Did Wampanoag children have pets back in the 1600s?
Wampanoag children had pets such as dogs, which were used for hunting and protection of the village, rabbits, skunk, and some other wild animals that they could train. The children had to keep a sharp eye on their pets lest they wind up in someone's pot for supper.
If a skunk was going to become a pet, it had to be de-scented first. After that, the skunk was a delightful friend. They did not have pigs or domesticated cats.
Baby bears also made good pets while they were small, but when they got older there were two problems. One, big bears ate a lot of food. Two, as they got larger they became dangerous. They were returned to the wild.
When you were a boy, what was the hardest thing in life?
As a Wampanoag boy, the hardest thing in life was keeping warm in the winter. To prepare for the harsh months, my family worked hard all year to make sure there was enough clothing and blankets to keep us warm when the snow fell. We had to help the tribal adults gather food that could be stored and saved for those hard months. We learned the habits of the winter animals so that we could track them in the snow so we could have meat and fur in the winter. It was my job to gather and store wood for the fire we used for heating and cooking. We had a busy life just to survive. We also had games to keep us occupied so that we would not be bored stiff. Our elders were great storytellers who gave us the history of our tribe and great stories about our hunters and warriors.
Why did 11-year-old boys have to go out by themselves and live in the woods?
If their trainer felt that a Wampanoag boy was ready, when the boy was 11 or 12, he was tested to determine if his hunting skills were developed. This was his school, and hunting was a very important lesson to learn.
Food and Hunting
How did the Wampanoags get their food? Did the Wampanoags ever face starvation?
Traditionally, the Wampanoag women planted food crops such as beans, corn, and squash. These were staple foods that could remain edible for many months. The Wampanoags also grew potatoes, which were another hearty food that would keep well in the winter months. In addition we were great hunters and fishermen who fed our families deer, rabbit, woodchuck, and duck, as well as all sorts of fish. The saltwater bays near the ocean provided food such as quahogs, clams, oysters, and mussels. We always knew what was in season so that we never went hungry or faced starvation.
Wampanoags were also great cooks. Even the men knew how to make a clambake big enough to feed the whole tribe. For desserts, there were wild strawberries, plums, cranberries, and other wild fruit.
Life was good before the Europeans came, and we enjoyed all the bounties provided to us by the Great Spirit. Occasionally, we would have a feast to thank the Great Spirit for the generous bounties he bestowed upon us. After the Europeans settled on our land, many changes took place which affected all the Wampanoags.
What kinds of food did the Wampanoag like to eat?
The Wampanoags ate all kinds of game animals, including deer, bear, rabbit, woodchuck, skunk, turtle, and squirrel. In addition, the Wampanoag ate a wide variety of fish. Mashpee Lake contained bass, pickerel, sunfish, and perch. In the spring, herring would darken the Mashpee River; there were so many of them, one could catch the herring with one's hands. Also, in Popponessett Bay, there was an abundance of shellfish, including quahogs, oysters, clams, and mussels. The bay was also filled with eels, which are delicious when cooked right, and lobster, crabs, flatfish, scup, and occasionally sea bass. Wampanoags also liked pheasant, wild duck, and the geese from up north.
What are the "Three Sisters?"
Wampanoags call corn, beans, and squash the "Three Sisters," because they were compatible and could grow in the same hill of earth.The corn grew, and the beans used the corn stalk to climb, and the squash just spread out to the side.
What kind of corn do you eat?
I eat crystal white corn, which was a special strain of corn grown in Mashpee.
Describe a typical hunt.
I was sent out on a hunting expedition to gather meat for our tribe. I left just before the full moon in order to have light at night for traveling and hunting. I was after deer and moose, although I would have liked to encounter a black bear. I also wanted to be able to find any of these animals close to home so that I would not have to carry the animal so far. A moose or bear are very heavy and would require much strength to carry them back home.
Before the hunt, my friends and I offered a prayer for the animals that we were going to kill. We know that even the animals have spirits and we want them to know that we have respect for the life they are about to give up for our tribe. Our hunting party got a deer and a bear on this trip, and we made sure that we used all parts of the animals. We stripped the fur for clothing and for blankets. The meat was carefully packed to take back to our village. The bear grease was saved for cooking and medicinal purposes.
On the third day, our hunt was over, and we returned to camp with enough food to feed the entire village. The Medicine Man said a prayer to thank the Great Spirit for a successful hunt.
Are you a hunter?
I am a great hunter and have learned to hunt for food since I was a little boy. My father and my uncles taught me to hunt and fish for food for the tribe. Game is plentiful in Mashpee, and we learned the habits of the animals as part of our training. We also learned not to kill any animal unless it was going to be eaten for food.
Before we kill an animal, we offer a prayer to the Great Spirit and pay our respects to the animal. If the Great Spirit guides our arrow straight, then we make sure to use all parts of the animal. The tribe eats the meat, the bones are used for tools, and the skin is used for moccasins or clothing. Thus, we have paid our respects to the animal.
Do Wampanoags use guns for hunting and for protection?
Wampanoags do not have guns. We use bows and arrows and clubs for hunting and for protecting our territory.
How were deer hunted?
The Wampanoag people are very respectful of anything that has a life, including deer. We only hunt deer when there is a need for food. A prayer is offered for the deer, and then the hunt begins. When a deer comes into range, the hunter shoots with great accuracy to bring the deer down with as little pain as possible. When the deer is processed, the Wampanoags use every part of the animal. The hide is used for clothing or moccasins, the meat for food for the tribe, and the horns and hooves are used for tools. A prayer is offered to the Great Spirit to thank him for the deer.
Are there any buffalo near your home? What kinds of animals do you hunt for food?
There are no buffalo near Mashpee. They are located in the plains of the West, where they have plenty of grass and grain to eat. Near Mashpee, we have bear, deer, moose, wild turkey, rabbit, woodchuck, skunk, and birds of all kinds. We use all of these for food, and the skins of some animals for clothing and shelter.
How did the Wampanoags make rope for their hunting snares? Who made the snares, men or women?
The Wampanoags were able to weave the rope out of hemp and tall grass. You probably saw woven mats inside the wetu. Both men and women were very proficient in making the snares, although the men were the ones who usually tended the traps to get the animals caught in the snares. Animals such as beaver, woodchuck, rabbit, and other small animals were caught this way.
What are your favorite foods?
My favorite food is lobster, stuffed with blue claw crab taken fresh from Popponessett Bay. To go along with this, I will have fresh yellow corn, potatoes, and wild onions. As an appetizer, I will have steamed clams with a few mussels thrown in. For dessert, I will have Indian pudding. This is not a meal to hurry. The meal is served over a three- or four-hour period, with adequate time to nap.
How were your canoes made?
The Wampanoags made two types of canoes. The one you saw at Plimoth Plantation at the Wampanoag Village was a wooden dugout canoe. It is made by selecting a large, wide-girth pine tree that is then carved out. We don't have metal axes, so the primary method of making the canoe is by burning out the inside. Once the fires are lit, they must be carefully tended lest they burn a hole on the boat. After many countless days of burning and gouging, the canoe is ready for launching. It is very heavy, but once in the water it is good transportation.
The other type of canoe that the Wampanoags used were made of supple cedar or ash saplings. These were bent into shape and covered with bark from a white birch tree. The bark was sewn with deerskin leather and sealed with pine pitch. This made a very swift boat that could travel long distances.
Tools and Weapons
How do you make your tools?
The Wampanoags used many things to make tools. We made our tools out of things that were available around us. For example, we used quahog shells to scrape leather, squash gourds, hold water, and manipulate animal horns and bones into tools. Rocks and shale were used to make axes or tomahawks. Certain types of stone could be used to make arrows for bows or flint for making fire.
How do you use your weapons? What are your weapons like?
Wampanoag men protect their villages. They learn how to make and use things like bows and arrows as toys when they are little. As they grow older and develop their skills, they learn how to use these for hunting and then for protection against enemies. They also know how to make knives from sharp rocks and shale. They also use roots and rocks to make war clubs.
How sharp were your arrows? What materials were they made from? What about knives?
Our arrows were very sharp. They were made of flintstone, rocks, and shells. Knives were made of sharp shells or flintstone and sometimes bones of animals.
How did you make your pots and pans?
Wampanoags made clay pottery. Some vessels were used to carry water, others were used for cooking. Before the English came, we did not have metal pots for cooking. If we needed to cook something, we cooked over a fire. Sometimes we cooked on hot rocks with seaweed to have a feast such as a clambake.
Is giving pots a sign of affection in your culture?
Wampanoags only got metal pots after the English came to these shores. Wampanoag people were excellent pottery makers and made exotic pottery vases and pots. These were used to hold liquid and for cooking. Sometimes, the pots were given as gifts as a show of affection.
In what kind of homes did Wampanoag live?
Wampanoag people lived in wetus, or wigwams, which were made of ash or cedar saplings that were bent into an arch and covered with bark from poplar or ash trees. There was a hole in the roof to let the smoke from the cooking fire out of the wetu. Inside there were sleeping racks covered with animal furs to make a comfortable sleeping pallet. The wigwam, or wetu, was warm and provided comfort in the winter and coolness in the summer.
Did you ever live in a teepee or a pueblo?
Teepees were built by the Indian tribes who lived on the plains, where the buffalo roam. Pueblo Indians who lived in the Southwest built pueblo structures of mud, clay, and straw. Oftentimes they would build their homes on the side of cliffs and in the hills of the Southwest.
How big was a wigwam inside? What did you put inside it?
Wigwams, or wetus, were usually made for a single family and were big enough to accommodate the mother, father, and all the kids. The wetu had benches for sitting or sleeping. The beds were covered with deerskin and keept us nice and warm at night. Some foods were hung from the sides of the wetu, and clothing and furs were laid out on the benches. Food and pottery were stored under the benches. A fire pit was in the center of the wetu, under a hole in the roof. The fire heated the house and was also used for cooking. Sometimes I used bulrush mats to keep me warm.
How were longhouses built? What were they like?
Wampanoags built longhouses for two or more families and for tribal meetings. The longhouse was built of cedar saplings, which were bent in a curved shape and tied with hemp. As the longhouse took shape, some members of the tribe stripped bark from the trees to cover the frame of the house. A hole flap was cut above the fire pit, which could be opened to let the smoke out. There was a hole flap for each fire in the longhouse. The longhouses and wetus were comfortable both summer or winter.
Clothes and Jewelry
What is your clothing made of? How long does it take to make a complete outfit?
My clothing is made of deerskin, which is designed to keep me warm and to prevent bushes and twigs from scratching my skin. My moccasins are made of rabbit skin on the inside and deerskin on the outside.
I am fortunate to be married to a good woman who knows how to scrape and tan the leather of animals that I get. The tanning process takes a few days to scrape and soften the leather. The sewing of the clothing will take a couple of days.
If my wife feels extra generous, she will decorate my tunic with feathers and brightly colored quahog shells. Small pieces of leather can be used for a hat, and a beaded belt would finish off the outfit. Total time to complete the outfit would be about one and a half to two weeks.
How did you make beads for your necklace? For what purposes were the beads used?
The Wampanoags made their own jewelry from things that were readily available to them. Quahog jewelry was the most popular for Wampanoag men and women. The quahog is a hard-shelled clam taken from the saltwater bays around Mashpee. The shell is hard, and the outer part of the shell is a deep purple. The shell was broken, and the purple part of the shell was shaped into beads. Wampanoag quahog beads were famous throughout Indian country and were used as items of trade and for ceremonial gifts to other tribal leaders. The Wampanoags used these beads to decorate their clothing and head dresses.
What else did Wampanoags use for jewelry and decorations?
Wampanoags also used feathers, shells, deer antlers, and red ochre to create colorful decorations.
I've noticed that eagle feathers were worn in the headdress of some braves but not all. Why was this?
The eagle feather was highly prized and was usually earned by the warriors for a brave or unusual deed. The eagle feather was worn with pride.
Why did women do so much of the work?
Wampanoag women performed many functions in the tribal village, but so did the men. The work was divided according to who had the skills. Making clothing was a woman's job, and indeed it was hard work. The men, on the other hand, did the hunting and fishing and protected the village. This, too, was hard work, which was necessary to sustain the village.
Beliefs and Celebrations
What is your religion?
The Wampanoag people generally practice Wampanoag Spiritualism. In this religion, our people believe in the bounties of Mother Earth and thank the animals, the plants, the winged ones, and the fish from the ocean, as well as all things which create the circle of life. Today, many of our people practice some form of Christianity. However, at events such as births or deaths or weddings, the Medicine Man is called upon to perform traditional tribal ceremonies.
How and why did the Wampanoags celebrate?
The Wampanoag people were very close to Mother Earth and many of their celebrations came at a time when there was a change in the season. For example, the spring celebration was especially joyous after a long cold winter. They would dance and sing around the fire, feast on venison and rabbit and tell stories of days gone by. These celebrations served the purpose of reinforcing the history of the tribe through oral tradition and of giving the tribal elders a position of honor.
In the summer, the Wampanoags hold a traditional powwow, which is still carried on today. Tribes from all over the country join us in this celebration. The Wampanoags conduct tribal business and the Medicine Man conducts name-giving ceremonies.
The fall celebrations usually are related to the harvest and huge feasts are held to celebrate the blessings given by the Great Spirit.
In the winter, the tribe gathers in the longhouse for social events or to celebrate a successful hunt. Food plays an important role in Wampanoag celebrations, and much credit is given to the creator for providing all these blessings.
Do the Northwest Indians still have potlaches?
Yes, the Northwest Indians still have potlaches, and the tradition is spreading east to the Wampanoags. In our potlach, the Wampanoags exchange gifts and try to give away things of value to other people in the tribe.
Did your family get to attend feasts such as the clambakes?
My family always attended the feasts, especially the clambake. The clambake was a community event, and everyone participated in doing the work. When the food was cooked, everyone ate to their heart's content. Clambakes are still done today in the traditional way of the Wampanoag.
About Fast Turtle
How did you get your name? What is your name in the Wampanoag language?
My name was given to me by the Supreme Medicine Man of the Wampanoag Nation. I am of the Turtle Clan, and since the Medicine Man was my brother, who is named Slow Turtle, he used a little humor to give me my name, because as a young boy I could run very fast. I used to run the quarter mile in 50 seconds. After I graduated from college, he thought Fast Turtle would be a good name for me. In the Wampanoag language I would be called Chicatoonipa Pinchek.
What are the names and ages of your children?
My children are named Tisquantum, aged 10, and Noonapokus, aged 7. They are both well into their apprenticeship. Noonapokus is already a good cook. She is named Wood Turtle because she has red hair similar in color to the underbelly of the wood turtle. Tisquantum is a great hunter and has already shot five deer with his bow and arrow.
Where do you live presently? Why do you enjoy living there?
I live in Brookline, Massachusetts, and in Mashpee, Massachusetts. I like Mashpee the best because it is on Cape Cod, near the ocean and wonderful freshwater lakes. Growing up there was a great experience, because there was plenty of space for hunting and fishing. The Wampanoags have an Indian Meeting House, which was built in 1684 by the early Christian missionaries. They still live in the same place as their ancestors. I like being close to Popponessett Bay, where there is an abundance of shellfish. The scup and flatfish are plentiful, and wild plums thrive in the summer months. We enjoy many of the same things as our ancestors.
What are some of your hobbies? Do you have modern-day conveniences?
Some of the hobbies that I enjoy are golf, bridge, music, and on occasion, I write poetry. I have written three books: The Wampanoags of Mashpee; Clambake, and Regalia. Most of the poems and books I write are about Mashpee and the Wampanoags. I feel that this is important, because most of the history of this part of the country is about the Pilgrims. I am interested in telling the story of the Wampanoag people.
I have modern-day things such as a Ford Taurus, a set of golf clubs, radio, television, and a Power Macintosh computer.
Do Wampanoag still celebrate an annual feast?
We have a number of feasts during the year. Wampanoags usually have a celebration when the seasons change or when the men have had a successful hunt or when the lobsters are plentiful, and particularly in the fall, when the crops are harvested. The clambake is one feast that is held when the clams and lobsters are plentiful. Large rocks are heated, and the food is cooked on the rocks for the entire tribe. After a hunt, deer, rabbit, wild turkey, and other delicious game foods are cooked over fires in the village compound. The Medicine Man always gives thanks to the Great Spirit for the bounties of Mother Earth.
From a historical perspective, how do the Wampanoags view the importance of the first Thanksgiving?
In looking back on this event, many Wampanoags view the feast in the fall of 1621 as a significant, but sad, event that led to the settlement of Wampanoag land by English settlers. At the time of the feast, it was quite natural to celebrate the bounties of the fall harvest and the availability of deer, wild turkey, fish, and foul. The Wampanoags shared their knowledge of the land and sea around them with the Pilgrims. This could have been the beginning of a genuine and lasting friendship, but it did not happen. This could have been caused by language and cultural and spiritual differences.
We were different, but the differences were not irreconcilable. The Pilgrims, who were escaping religious persecution in Europe, were quick to impose their religious beliefs on the Wampanoags without stopping to realize that these people had a religion of their own. While they were literate and rational along European standards, the Europeans knew little about survival in a world where they were not surrounded by food and comforts of life. The Wampanoags, on the other hand, were as one with the earth and their surroundings. They knew how to build sustainable shelters, understood the food sources, and could clothe themselves. They knew how to make canoes and could travel anywhere in winter or summer. The Wampanoags also belonged to the Algonquin-language group, which covered a wide geographic area; thus they were able to communicate with people from what is now Canada to South Carolina and west to Wisconsin.
If I could go back to 1621, I would work very hard to create a good working relationship with the Pilgrims that would include mutual respect for language and culture. There is so much that could be shared that would make the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags stronger. For this we would be truly thankful.
Can you give us any unique information about the Wampanoag?
When you study the Wampanoag people, you are studying the tribe that first had contact with the English. The Mashpee Wampanoag tribe is still in the same area as when the Pilgrims landed in 1620. There are plans to create a Wampanoag historic district in Mashpee.