Native Americans Have Had Enough of This Pilgrim History Museum

·6 min read

Native Americans in Massachusetts are calling for a boycott of a museum that they say has been erasing tribes’ place in history, while investing in the portrayal of Pilgrims who settled in Plymouth Colony.

Members of the Wampanoag tribe say they were once more deeply involved in the Plimoth Patuxet Museums, but now their participation has dwindled.

“I would say most of the people in my tribe worked there at one point or another, but they treated us so bad that nobody wanted to work there anymore,” Anita Peters, a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe and former museum employee, told The Daily Beast.

The Plimoth Patuxet Museums—based in Plymouth, Massachusetts—is dedicated to telling the thousands-year history of Native Americans in the area and the arrival of Pilgrims via the Mayflower in 1620. The museum is designed to be a living history experience, where guests can see traditional Wampanoag wetu (houses), artifact replicas, and artwork from the 1600s. The site initially opened in the 1940s, using the 17th century colonialist spelling of “Plimoth.”

While it might seem like the museum offers an all-encompassing view of history, Wampanoag members say the museum prioritizes the colonialist past over their own. They’ve complained about the Indigenous section of the museum being small, outdated, and not maintained to the same extent as the Pilgrim side, and that museum administrators don’t value their cultural contributions enough to include them in current decision making.

Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, chairwoman of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head Aquinnah, said in an interview with The Daily Beast that the museum has not adequately consulted with Native Americans about their history.

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“We still have to spend a lot of time correcting the narrative that they were putting out there because it was still feeding into the false narrative. That has been the history that we've had to endure throughout the centuries,” she said. “The focus really wasn't on having that bicultural, balanced experience. …We knew just how critically important it was to set the record straight and provide that balance.”

Andrews-Maltais, who said she, her mother, sister, and brothers all worked at the museum at some point, noted that the Native American side of the museum has not seen any noticeable improvements over the last 50 years, despite the museum receiving federal funding. Meanwhile, she said the Pilgrim division stays updated with new exhibits and features.

“That relays or communicates a really big misinformation that we did not have the sophistication of our culture and our practice the way that [Pilgrims] would have been at that time, almost reflecting that we're kind of dirt poor and ignorant,” she said. “Well, we weren't.”

According to the Associated Press, large holes have been found in replicas of traditional Wampanoag housing, which are a main attraction on the historical site. Guides on the Native American side also did not wear traditional attire. But Pilgrim housing has been well maintained and guides wear detailed 17th-century costumes.

In a statement to The Daily Beast Wednesday, spokesperson Robert Kluin said Plimoth Patuxet has raised $2 millions for overall renovations, for the Pilgrim site, Wampanoag site, and online campaigns. But he did not provide a breakdown of how the funds would be appropriated or how federal funding had already been used to maintain the museum and homesite.

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Paula Peters, a member of the Wampanoag Mashpee tribe who worked off and on for about 40 years as an interpreter and in the marketing department at the museum, said she was astonished during a recent trip. She provided photos to The Daily Beast of wetu housing covered in holes, and said Native Americans who work at the museum have been hired from other tribes.

“There’s less and less Wampanoag employees. …They also have changed a lot,” she said.

The Wampanoag are the people native to the overall region, which is called Patuxet. However, tribal members are leery that the specific Wampanoag culture is being assimilated into a larger identity.

“It used to be called the Wampanoag Homesite, and it's no longer called that. It’s called the Patuxet Homesite,” Peters said, adding, It’s almost like they're erasing from the nomenclature.”

Wampanoag Mashpee tribe member Sookunôn Nushkeesuqut told The Daily Beast that he was warned by museum officials that he would be fired for taking too much time off work to be a ceremonial performer during funerals and spiritual services. He also said that museum employees faced racism and microaggressions from guests.

Anita Peters agreed. She said museum officials did not stand up for Wampanoag employees whenever they encountered offensive behavior from tourists. Instead, they were told to just smile it off.

“Tourists would say ignorant things and we were told, ‘Well, as long as you have a smile on your face, you can say what you want,’” she said, recalling how a woman visiting the park once stuck her head underneath a Wampanoag guide’s loincloth in order for her friends to take a picture. “I thought, ‘No, no. That'll make them think we’re just clowns, you know, tolerate any kind of racism or anything like that.’”

In response to allegations of workers experiencing racism, Kluin said the museum “has a zero tolerance policy with regard to discrimination of any kind takes immediate steps to investigate and respond to any incidents that are reported to us.”

He added that the museum provides training for its employees on how to handle tough situations with guests, empowering its “staff to remove themselves from any uncomfortable situation.”

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Kluin said the Wampanoag history is vital to the future of Plimoth Patuxet Museums. He did not directly address the holes found in Wampanoag housing, but claimed a spring storm had destroyed some signage around the site. He also said that exhibits for both the Wampanoag and Pilgrim divisions are being expanded and that more staff members would be added.

“Our team firmly believes that hiring from within Indigenous communities is vital to fostering an authentic learning experience. We have several initiatives in place to recruit and retain professionals from within both hyper-local Wampanoag communities and broader Indigenous communities,” Kluin said.

“As a cultural institution, we recognize a responsibility to reach out to our employees,” he added, “the communities we serve and the communities reflected in the stories we tell to assure that we are meeting our high standards for representation.”

Regardless of the museum’s insistence that it remains committed to Wampanoag representation, some within the community just aren’t buying it. Instead of hiring members or seeking advice from the Wampanoag, tribal members say the museum has been recruiting Native Americans from other communities and seemingly trying to pass them off as Wampanoag—treating different Native American tribes as a monolithic group.

“I'd be surprised if you could find anyone in the tribe that would recommend going there or working there,” Paula Peters said.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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