Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Culture On Display At Renewed Museum
By: Brian Kehrl
The Mashpee Wampanoag Indian Museum will reopen to the public this weekend after hanging on for more than a decade with its doors closed and in disrepair.
Glass cases are filled with stone artifacts and reproductions of leather wares, antique furniture is arranged around the old fireplace, and tribe members are still coming by with loans and donations for tribal family history to display.
There is still more work needed to finish the displays and a planned reading room, but the tribe’s organizers say it is done enough to open to the public and the flood of tribe members headed into town this weekend to attend pow wow.
Opening Sunday Morning
- The Mashpee Wampanoag Indian Museum, at 414 Route 130 in Mashpee, will be open for the first time since 1998 on Sunday morning, from 10 AM to noon. The reopening will follow a service at the Mashpee Old Indian Meetinghouse at 9 AM.
- The public is invited to both events.
- The museum is scheduled to be open on Mondays and Thursdays, from 9 AM to 1 PM, through the summer and early fall.
“Planning for the future of the tribe is important. But we cannot forget our past,” the tribe’s museum committee wrote in a statement to the Enterprise. “Life in Mashpee holds very special memories for many people and we’d like to help keep those memories alive with the help of the elders and other tribal members. We’d like to eventually record the stories of Mashpee, its people and places, and have those stories available to our visitors.”
An opening ceremony is planned on Sunday morning, and the museum will be open two mornings a week through the summer, according to Putnam Peters, chairman of the tribe’s museum committee.
The reopening will begin the first extended period of time in which the museum will open under the tribe’s ownership.
It also marks the next piece in a vision of the area as a historical corridor in town, stretching from the museum and the nearby Mashpee River herring run, over to the Mashpee Archives, Mashpee One-room Schoolhouse, and Mashpee Baptist Church, down to the Old Indian Meetinghouse and Cemetery.
“In essence that gives you pretty much the historic story of Mashpee, between the museum, the meetinghouse, and the schoolhouse. So it really is an important way of getting people to come to Mashpee and then go down to the Commons and spend their money,” said Frank J. Lord, a member of the Mashpee Historical Commission and of the Mashpee One-Room Schoolhouse Preservation Council.
“I am so glad that it is going to open. But I do want to be sure that we coordinate. It would be easier if they could open Mondays and Thursday to coincide with us. But if they don’t, I will switch around the days that we do the tours of the school to work with them,” Mr. Lord said, adding that he hopes the museum can be included on tours of the area that now cover the schoolhouse and the archives.
Tribe members anticipated Mr. lord’s request, and the museum is scheduled to be open on Mondays and Thursdays, to coincide with the schoolhouse and archives.
“It is important, I think, because it shows the continuity of the tribe in Mashpee and that we have always been here and why Mashpee is so important to us. This is our home. This is not just Mabel Avant’s old house. This represents every homestead in Mashpee, so many of which we weren’t able to preserve,” said Paula D. Peters, a tribe member who has worked on the museum committee.
During a tour of the museum this week, tribe members involved in the latest stage of the restoration—Mr. Peters, chairman of the museum committee, and committee member Ellen Hendricks, as well as Mr. Peters’s wife, Jeanne Peters—gave a brief tour of the little museum and explained the efforts to set it up again repairs on the building were finished last year.
Ms. Hendricks said tribal elders Ann Peters Brown and Nellie Ramos are also members of the museum committee.
Ms. Hendricks said the tribe hopes to recruit elders to staff the museum and offer tours.
The display includes a chair donated by a descendant of the 17th-century preacher Richard Bourne. Ms. Hendricks said the descendant wanted the chair to be kept in the meetinghouse, but since there was no room, he was happy to have it in the museum.
Some of the artifacts are from the museum site itself, found when the foundation was dug.
Ms. Hendricks said the committee was waiting for a desk to be delivered from the tribal council office. She said it is from a Yarmouth woman who donated her home and belongings to the tribe. The home was eventually relocated to Great Neck Road South and used as half of the current tribal council headquarters.
She said anecdotes like that are important for both non-tribe members and tribe members alike to learn.
According to the museum committee, plans for the future include a reading room in the small space upstairs and an herb garden nearby, as well as building a traditional structure, known as a wetu, as an outdoor exhibit at the site.
Jeanne Peters said now the committee must focus on cataloguing all the items in detail and verifying their origins.
Tribal elder George A. Lewis came by on Tuesday morning to drop off an old stone tomahawk he said was found over on Nantucket. The oblong grey stone is heavy in the hand and still sharp.
“We have a collection of these,” Mr. Peters said.
“But I don’t think you have one as good as this one,” Mr. Lewis said.
Mr. Lewis said he was bringing by some of his artifacts to be displayed in the museum. “It’s for the people to see,” he said. “Why just keep them in your house?”
The small group of tribe members talked about their ancestors, like Anna Pocknett and how she loved her garden and rummage sales, and like former postmaster Flora Amos.
Ms. Hendricks also brought some of her historic items. Stored in a Nike shoebox were dozens of old photographs and books, like Frank Speck’s 1928 book on Native Americans in New England.
“See here, the Mashpee tribe was recognized as an Indian community in the 1860s, but not as a tribe,” Ms. Hendricks said. “They didn’t have to because this was an Indian territory. It was just a given.”
Mr. Peters displayed a reproduction of an 1877 map of the town, by surveyor Cyrus Cahoon, showing each property and the family who owned it. The map was produced just seven years after the town was founded, and in the property lines, the shadow of many of today’s properties are visible.
Ms. Hendricks showed a mid-1940s photograph of a Mashpee baseball team that played against teams from other towns on Cape Cod. There are four members of the team still alive, Mr. Peters said. “Remember we won the championship in ’48?” Ms. Hendricks said.
Jeanne Peters said items from the museum were stored in various places, and not always with proper labels, so the committee is still working on tracking it all down.
The structure itself, known as the Bourne-Avant House, is historic. The date of construction of the building is unclear—though it is widely believed to have been built in the 1700s. Half of its name is derived from a descendant of preacher Richard Bourne, who is believed to have built the house, according to archives of the Enterprise. The building shares its name with Mabel L. Avant, a prominent Wampanoag who was the last resident of the small house.
The museum was founded in 1973 in large part by tribe member Amelia G. Bingham, who went on to oversee the museum for many years, including when it attracted as many as 20,000 people a year through the 1970s, according to archives of the Enterprise.
When the museum was founded, the town received ownership of the building, which became a sore spot for tribe members who felt they should control the building displaying the tribe’s own history. After years of negotiations, October 1995 Town Meeting voted unanimously to authorize the town to enter into a 99-year-lease of the property. In 1998, the deed changed hands, from the town to the tribe.
The museum was closed in October of 1998 in preparation for renovations that were expected to take less than a year, according to Enterprise archives.
But problems with the building contractor delayed the reopening on several occasions, until the restoration completely stalled due to a lack of funding and initiative from the tribal council.
Like the meetinghouse, the museum has been a divisive issue for the tribe itself, with political battles waged over who is, and is not, working to see it reopened.
Tribe members said this week, however, that the reopening marks a chance to heal old wounds.
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