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Originally published in the Historic Nantucket, Vol 44, no. 3 (Winter 1996), p. 98-100

A Report on the NHA Symposium: Nantucket and the Native American Legacy of New England

The symposium, organized by NHA curator Michael Jehle, was held at Nantucket High School last August. Capacity audiences attended the series of talks concerning the people who for three thousand years before European settlement made this sandy island their home. Participants in this symposium were:

NANEPASHEMET
A leader of the Assonet band of the Wampanoag nation and director/curator of the Wampanoag Indian Program at Plimoth Plantation.

NATHANIEL PHILBRICK
Independent scholar in American studies, writer, and historical researcher.

ELIZABETH LITTLE
The NHA's long-time volunteer Curator of Prehistoric Archaeology.

TIMOTHY J. LEPORE
Chief of Medicine at Nantucket Cottage Hospital and enthusiastic amateur archaeologist.

MICHAEL GIBBONS
Professor and Chairman-elect of the Anthropology Department, University of Massachusetts, Boston.

SLOW TURTLE (JOHN PETERS)
Supreme Medicine Man of the Wampanoag nation and Director of the Commission on Indian Affairs for tlie Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Following are synopses of Michael Jehle's introductory remarks and of the participants' presentations.

MICHAEL JEHLE: In the late 1640s, when Thomas Mayhew first came to Nantucket as a missionary from Martha's Vineyard, he found more than three thousand native people living here. The people he found were part of a vast and culturally complex community that extended from Saco Bay, Maine, to the Housatonic River area in Connecticut, and from Long Island inland to southern New Hampshire and Vermont. With a few minor exceptions, the Indians who occupied that region spoke closely related dialects of the Algonquin language and subsisted through cultivating maize, beans, and squash and with fishing and hunting and gathering.

The native Nantucketers whom Mayhew met were part of a political federation, known today as the Wampanoag Nation, within the Algonquin cultural region. The Wampanoag Nation comprised what is today eastern Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts, including Cape Cod and Martha's Vineyard. When Mayhew made his first contact with the Nantucket Indians there were four tribes, or sachemships, occupying different areas of the island. Day-to-day leadership of each of the distinct communities was provided by a chief, or sachem. The two largest tribes, led by the Sachems Wanachmamack and Nickanoose, occupied the eastern part of the island from the harbor south to the Madequecham Valley. Two smaller communities along the south shore were led by Sachems Spotso and Attapeat.

Like the Wampanoags on the mainland, the Nantucketers' lives evolved with the seasons. They maintained extensive cultivated fields and fished both the ocean's shore and the island's fresh water ponds, occasionally supplementing their diet with pelagic mammals like humpback whales, blackfish, and seals. Life on Nantucket's sandy soil was far from idyllic. Harvests ranged from minimal to poor and the island's relatively high density of population contributed to periodic near famine and chronic malnutrition.

It was not long after Thomas Mayhew's missionary expeditions to Nantucket that a group of English settlers came to the island, in part to escape the cultural and religious constraints of the Massachusetts Bay Colony's Puritanism, but primarily in search of land and agricultural resources. By the time those settlers arrived in the middle of the seventeenth century, Nantucket's native population had already experienced more than a century of contact with explorers and fishermen, and a decade or more of continuous association with the Mayhews through their missionary work.

Religious bigotry, cultural bias, and a materialistic view of the world kept those early European visitors from understanding and appreciating the spiritual, cultural, and intellectual richness of the native peoples they encountered, so they recorded very little of the life and culture of Nantucket's Indians. Our documented knowledge of the first Nantucketers dates from after European settlement of the island. Native social structures and life styles were altered through increasing European interaction and economic exploitation, so that our perception of Nantucket's Indians is colored by the biases and naivete of those early European settlers.

Today, increasing numbers of scholars are working to cut through those biases to obtain a deeper understanding of, and relationship with, the culture and civilization of the first Nantucketers.

NANEPASHEMET: Oral tradition tells us that there were people on Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard when you could still walk there, before the melting of the glaciers and the subsequent rise in the ocean's level. That tradition talks about transitions and changes. As their homes became islands the life styles of the people changed, but they retained the language, technologies, and social and political cultures of their mainland brothers. There is convincing evidence of extensive trade between the islanders and mainland communities. Bowls made of soapstone from quarries in Johnstown, Rhode Island, attest to that trade. Contact with early European traders is suggested by artifacts of copper and brass that came from the coast of Maine.

The early inhabitants of Nantucket were a cosmopolitan people whose horizons extended well beyond the shores of the island long before the first Europeans arrived.

NATHANIEL PHILBRICK: Portrayals of the local Indian culture by the European settlers and their descendants and subsequently in western literature have been instrumental in generating and perpetuating many of the misperceptions of Nantucket Indians that persist to this day.

ELIZABETH LITTLE: Long before the settlers arrived the Indians knew and appreciated "Pootop," the Wampanoag word for whale. Stranded whales were a welcome and important addition to their larders and shore whaling was a well-established practice by the time Europeans came to the island. The Indians undertook to help the settlers exploit this unique resource, and their importance in that endeavor was recognized in 1692 when the colony of New York levied a tax on whales, except those that belonged to the Indians. As whalers and crew members Nantucket Indians were instrumental in the success of island whaling.

TIMOTHY J. LEPORE: 358 Native Americans lived on Nantucket in the early months of 1763. Between August of that year and February of 1764, 222 of them died of a disease, the nature of which has never been clearly delineated. Contemporary sources describe a "yellow plague" with high fever, pain, a jaundiced appearance, and swelling of the neck. The affliction was not recognized by island physicians or bone setters, who had experience with other epidemic diseases and would have been able to identify the "sickness" had it been one of them. Today, by a process of elimination, it may be possible to make an educated guess about the identity of the killer.

By excluding diseases like smallpox, typhus, plague, measles, diphtheria, and scarlet fever, all of which were known to island medical practitioners and shared some, but not all, of the symptoms of the "Indian Sickness," Dr. Lepore made a good case for louse-borne relapsing fever as the actual malady. The disease's vector is the human body louse. Contemporary accounts all point toward the proper conditions for the spread of the disease that supposedly was brought to Nantucket by sick crew members of an Irish trading ship. Louse-borne relapsing fever exists today in Thailand and Ethiopia and was contracted by some of our troops in Vietnam and Somalia. It is caused by a type of bacterium called a spirochete, as are Lyme disease and syphilis. While the true identity of the "Indian Sickness" remains a mystery, louse-borne relapsing fever surely meets the criteria as we know them today.

MICHAEL GIBBONS: The scientific analysis of skeletal artifacts can tell a great deal about the individual. Characteristics such as age, sex, stature, ancestry, and general health can be ascertained with a great degree of accuracy.

Studies of the 500- to 1,000-year-old skeletal remains of 31 pre-contact Nantucket individuals - 11 females, 15 males, and 5 infants, the latter of undetermined sex - provide a valid sample. The findings from these examinations when compared to studies of similar mainland remains lead to some fascinating conclusions.

Although the incidence of periodontal diseases among the Nantucket Indians was unusually large, and osteoarthritis was fairly prevalent as well, they were taller, more powerful and robust, longer lived, and, for the most part, healthier than their mainland counterparts. The average height of the males was 5 feet, 9 1/2 inches; that of the females, 5 feet, 3 inches. The average age of the males was 35 years, 6 months; of females, 25 years, 8 months. These average ages are 3 1/2 to 4 years older than the average age of mainland Indians of the same period.

It seems apparent that island living agreed with these earliest inhabitants and that they prospered in this environment.

SLOW TURTLE: His role as a Mashpee Wampanoag is to give back to his people their story of creation and the way of life derived from it. The Wampanoag tradition holds that the Great Spirit placed all living things on the earth and instructed each one as to its purpose. Birds migrate, trees bear fruit, fish swim near to shore — all living things function according to these instructions. Every human being, therefore, has a unique set of instructions. People may not know why they are here, but sharing their knowledge and experience gives purpose to their lives.

Unlike most other Indian tribes, the Wampanoags have not been moved to new locations. They remain on their original lands, both physical and spiritual. Because of this the Wampanoags are vitally concerned that their consecrated places should be preserved, that remains and artifacts be reinterred in the places they were found. Slow Turtle complimented the people of Nantucket for their sensitivity in this regard.

With humor, Slow Turtle pointed out that he is a Wampanoag, not an Indian. By law, an Indian is "a ward of the government." Since he pays taxes, he is not a ward but a citizen and he devotes much of his time and effort working politically as a citizen to promote regulation and legislation to expedite the return of Indian remains, artifacts, and grave items ".. .that have been held hostage in the dusty back rooms of museums..." to proper burial grounds.

Many of Slow Turtle's concerns are addressed in the following article, which suggests a new and different course for museum practices.