Mayflower 400 events could help recover lost Native American treasure

Members of Wampanoag nation central to year focused on anniversary of colonists’ journey from Plymouth in 1620

Native Americans whose ancestors suffered at the hands of 17th-century European settlers and adventurers are hoping commemorative events marking the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower’s journey will reveal their story to the whole world – and even lead to the recovery of one their long-lost treasures.

A year-long series of exhibitions, performances and community events will be centred on the Devon port of Plymouth, four centuries after the ship set sail for North America, and thousands of people from both sides of the Atlantic are expected to take part.

Organisers say that the close involvement of members of the Wampanoag nation, whose ancestors were all but wiped out following the arrival of the colonists in 1620, is crucial to the success of the project.

“We’re very pleased to be standing up as equals on an international platform to tell our story,” said Paula Peters, who is a member of the Wampanoag and sits on an advisory committee helping shape the British commemoration.

“So often the story of the Mayflower is just about the boat. The Mayflower lands and the pilgrims are depicted as founders, not takers,” she said. For Peters’ ancestors, it was very different: a brutal tale of disease, enslavement and massacre.

But it is not just about looking back, Peters said. “The commemoration also gives us the opportunity to remind the world who we are and that we are still here. We are a viable and very active nation of indigenous people.”

A member of the Wampanoag nation working on the new wampum belt.
A member of the Wampanoag nation working on the new wampum belt. Photograph: handout

One of the most eye-catching commemoration projects is the exhibition of an ornate wampum (shell bead) belt, which is being created by more than 100 Wampanoag people. Patterns on the belt made out of thousands of quahog (clam) shells tell the story of the Wampanoag through symbols such as whale, deer, fish and a creation tree.

The belt has been worked on at powwows and other gatherings in Massachusetts since July and will be complete by February. It will be a star attraction in a show that will tour UK cities connected to the Mayflower from April, led by the city’s new cultural centre The Box.

Peters hopes the making of the belt may prompt the return of an old one, that of the Wampanoag chief Metacom. It has not been seen since it was taken to England in 1677 following the bloody King Philip’s War between Native Americans and colonists.

“We continue to look for this belt,” said Peters. “It’s not just a treasure, it’s our story. It could be in England still, perhaps in a private collection. It may be pie in the sky but we hope the tour of our new belt may jog someone’s memory. That’s a tangible thing that could come out of all this.”

Julia Marden, the weaving manager for the new belt, and a specialist in eastern woodland art, said she was honoured to be part of the project. “We’re getting as many tribal members as possible involved,” she said.

Marden, who is also a member of the Wampanoag, said she supported the idea not of recovering the Metacom belt, but seeing others held in places such as the British Museum handed back. “As an indigenous person I would say we want it all back, but we’re realistic. We know we’re not going to get it all back.”

Marden also said she hoped the commemoration would remind the world that the Wampanoag people and other Native Americans were still around. “We’re hidden in plain sight,” she said. “If we’re not living in a teepee or riding a horse on the plains we’re not recognisable but we’re your neighbours, your co-workers, we go to school with you.”

Among the other commemorative events in Devon involving Native Americans is a community theatre piece called This Land, which wrestles with the history of the Mayflower and the impact of its arrival. It is to be performed and created with hundreds of residents of Plymouth in the UK and members of the Wampanoag people and will feature songs written and performed by the Devon folk artist Seth Lakeman.

Tree of Memory by Spanish artist Xavi Bove, an illumination at Royal William Yard on the launch of Mayflower 400, 27 November 2019.
Tree of Memory by Spanish artist Xavi Bove, an illumination at Royal William Yard on the launch of Mayflower 400 on 27 November. Photograph: Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images

Another intriguing project is Settlement, billed as a collaboration between a Plymouth collective and the Native American artist Cannupa Hanska Luger. It will involve Native American artists “occupying” Plymouth’s Central Park to explore colonialism.

Charles Hackett, the chief executive of Mayflower 400, said Native Americans had been missing from previous UK commemorations. “This is not a story about a boat leaving one place and arriving in another place,” he said. “It is a story that has a huge sweep of history.”

Hackett said the arrival of the Mayflower was a seismic moment in the creation of what is now the west, but was cataclysmic for the Wampanoag people. “It’s important we include all the voices that are significant. We won’t get it entirely right. How can you? But we’re committed to doing it better than it was before.”


Steven Morris

The GuardianTramp

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