Before the Mayflower arrived in 1620, thousands of indigenous nations lived on the northeast coast of North America. The pilgrims aboard the Mayflower arrived in the territory of the Wampanoag Nation. Learn more about Wampanoag history and culture from three members of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribal nation. "1620: Beyond Thanksgiving" is produced by NBC News Learn in partnership with NBC 10 Boston/NECN.
America Before the Pilgrims
KERRI HELME (Plimoth Plantation/Mashpee Wampanoag): (Kerri speaking foreign language) My name is Kerri Helme. I'm the cultural programs and guest experience manager here at Plimoth Plantation, and I am an enrolled member of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribal nation from Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
DARIUS COOMBS (Plimoth Plantation/Mashpee Wampanoag): My name is Darius Coombs-- Mashpee Wampanoag, that's my nation of people. And I'm the director of Wampanoag and Algonquin interpreter training here at Plimoth Plantation.
K. HELME: Wampanoag means "people of the white light," and the reason being is our territory extended all the way to the tip of the Cape, and we're the first to see the sun.
The Northeast before contact with Europeans, I think a lot of people have it in their mind that it was kind of untouched, pristine wilderness.
We did practice cultivation of crops, so we were slashing and burning from the shore to a mile inland before the old-growth forest would start.
There were several tribes in what's now known as Massachusetts. There were the Wampanoag people, my people, on the East Coast of Massachusetts, and then in Central Massachusetts you also had the Nipmuc and the Pomatuc.
COOMBS: There's probably over 1,000 different indigenous nations, and Wampanoag is just one. And what makes us similar is how we think about life. We respect all forms of life, including human, of course. They say the codfish were so thick around here that you could walk right across their backs to the tip of Cape Cod. They say we had so much lobster around here you could walk down the beach at low tide and pick a lobster off the beach.
K. HELME: Before the Mayflower arrived in 1620, my ancestors had almost 100 years of recorded contact with European people. The first person to record interaction with Wampanoag people was Giovanni da Verrazano. But we had English, French, Dutch, occasionally Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, traders, mappers, slavers, fishermen, lots of interaction.
When they started interacting with the different groups of Europeans it was wave after wave of pathogens and infectious disease that swept through. The 1616 to 1618 plague, we believe, was brought by French fur traders up in Maine, and it swept very quickly down the coast, all the way to Narragansett Bay where it stopped.
Patuxet means "place of the little falls" in my language, and that's for all the natural springs. It's located in what's now called Plymouth, Massachusetts. It was one of the largest of our original 69 communities because of all the natural springs, so we think there was about 2,000 people living there. Unfortunately, those people were hardest hit by the Plague of 1616 to 1618. So, by the time the English settled here in 1620, there was no one living here.
COOMBS: This is where the colonists first landed in December of 1620. We were used to people coming over. But we weren't used to people coming over and staying, and people bringing women and children, and building homes.
K. HELME: The things that they were making were lasting several generations. What I think was the most important for people to take away about Wampanoag people then and now is that we're still here. You know, we're living, breathing culture. I like to talk about language revitalization. It's the youth, really, that are spearheading a lot of these projects. You know, they're really proud of their culture.
ALANA HELME (Plimoth Plantation/Mashpee Wampanoag): My name is Alana Helme, I am Mashpee Wampanoag, and I'm also the Mashpee Wampanoag Powwow Princess. It’s not bad. That honor means that I have to be a good inspiration to younger kids, and I have to be a good role model, to show them how traditional things would have been done. I grew up learning how to make regalias from a young age, cooking traditional foods like nasamp, and venison, and wild rice, and just a bunch of different other things. Pottery, quill work, weaving.
K. HELME: You can see how tiny these little checkerboards are…
COOMBS: We have the power to change a person's way of thought. As they come into the museum here, they might be thinking one way about Wampanoag people, or they might be thinking another way about colonists. And when they leave here it might be different, so we are empowered.
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