While fishing for striped bass along the Cape Cod Canal in early May Marcus Hendricks, a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, was hollered at by a man who said the fish Mr. Hendricks had caught and laid out on the rocks were too small.
Mr. Hendricks said he told the man that he is a tribal member exercising his aboriginal rights to fish outside the regulations, but, slinging profanities, the man responded that he did not care.
The situation deescalated when Mr. Hendricks, who said he has a lot of experience dealing with incidents of harassment while exercising his aboriginal rights, walked back to his truck and called the Massachusetts Environmental Police.
Occurrences of tribal members being harassed by non-natives while exercising aboriginal rights are all too common, Mr. Hendricks said, and the state and municipalities should do more to educate the public to prevent such confrontations.
“It gets to a point where people try to deputize themselves,” Mr. Hendricks said. “We get into those situations where people say derogatory things, racial slurs.” Mr. Hendricks said the harassment occurs throughout the state but is especially common at fish ladders, such as the ladders at Santuit Pond and the Indian Museum in Mashpee and at a fish ladder in Wareham, that tribal members frequent.
“We’re not going there as recreation, this is subsistence,” he said. “I’m getting food for me and my family, so I’m constantly being harassed.”
The aboriginal rights of native people to hunt, fish and forage is written into Massachusetts law and have been upheld by courts. Card-holding tribal members do not have to abide by restrictions on limits for fishing or shellfishing, can take herring and are generally exempt from many hunting, fishing and foraging regulations that non-natives have to abide by.
For native people whose ancestors have lived in what is now the state of Massachusetts for thousands of years, fishing, hunting and foraging is “part of who we are culturally,” said David W. Weeden, a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Council who is also a Mashpee selectman.
The rights of indigenous people to hunt, fish and forage in their ancestral lands are “inalienable rights given us to by the Creator which have sustained us for thousands of years,” Mr. Weeden said.
“We’ve managed to live here for thousands of years,” he said. “We predate the country.”
Mr. Weeden said that while he has never been harassed while exercising his aboriginal rights, he knows plenty of tribal members who have faced verbal barrages or even physical confrontations such as when, just weeks ago, a woman tried to mace a tribal member taking herring in Mashpee.
“For us to go and connect with the natural environment and hunt and fish, it spiritually helps us in coping with everyday life,” Mr. Weeden said. For tribal members, he said, hunting, fishing and foraging is inseparable from culture and religion.
“Any infringement of those rights I would see as infringing on our religious freedoms,” he said. “The people imposing and impeding on [aboriginal rights] are just wrong.”
Kevin Michael Frye Sr., the chief of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Police Department, said that while the tribal police department is not the authority that responds to incidents of harassment since incidents typically occur off-reservation, the tribe has worked with municipal and state officials to increase signage and education.
“They’re getting a lot more [harassment] than normal,” Mr. Frye said. “Maybe because a lot more people are out and about because of COVID.”
While state authorities recognize aboriginal rights, many individuals do not even know that native people live in Massachusetts, Mr. Hendricks said.
“People are taught growing up that we don’t exist anymore, then when they do see a native its on TV, the Midwestern-looking native,” he said. “They go walk their dog one day and they see this random person harvesting shellfish or harvesting alewifes and the sign says one thing and they’re doing another thing.”
He noted that the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe has about 3,000 members spread throughout southeastern Massachusetts.
Education through state and municipal governments and more-frequent postings by agencies as well as better signage could go a long way to preventing harassment, Mr. Hendricks said.
He suggested that the Environmental Police put out notices on social media or on their website on a seasonal basis and make more prominent postings of their phone number so that individuals know who to call rather than act on vigilantism.
“I think the state should actually come out and reaffirm the aboriginal rights and how they apply to Native Americans,” Mr. Weeden said. “Maybe even through an act of state legislation.”
Mr. Weeden said he wishes that every town on Cape Cod and in Massachusetts would work to provide educational material to residents and visitors about aboriginal rights.
“It’s an educational matter and people are unaware,” he said.
Mr. Hendricks said he wanted to remind people that the proper authority to call if you suspect a violation of environmental regulations is the Massachusetts Environmental Police, who can be reached at 800- 632-8075.