On November 15, 2023, Thomas Green, vice president of the Massachusett-Ponkapoag Tribal Council and an Indigenous culture steward and educator, addressed the CA campus community. In this assembly held in the Performing Arts Center in honor of Native American Heritage Month, Green shared the history of the Massachusett people, whose villages once reached from Salem, Mass., to Plymouth along the coast and inland as far west as Worcester.
During the period of European colonization, Green explained, the English and French were both vying for control of this area. He made clear the extent to which Indigenous people shaped the formation of the United States. In the early 1600s, for example, the French sought a trading alliance with the Massachusett; when denied, they formed one with the Wabanaki Confederacy to the north. “If the Grand Sac’hem had accepted an alliance with France, we’d all be speaking in French right now, not English,” Green said.
Green reviewed the traditionally matriarchal social structure of his people and the tribal hierarchy. In his historical overview, he discussed the smallpox epidemics that killed 90% of Indigenous people in the area between 1616 and 1619. He also recounted the 1623 massacre at Wessagusset, a savage attack led by Miles Standish, a military officer hired by the Plymouth Colony, that ruined relations between the Massachusett and the Plymouth colonists.
Events such as these, as well as the forced conversion and assimilation of Indigenous people in “Praying Indian towns” devastated Indigenous communities. In a twist of fate, the records these towns kept have provided many individuals today with the historical documentation they have needed to prove their ancestral membership in the Massachusett Tribe.
One of the earliest books published in North America, Green explained, was the Eliot Indian Bible—the first translation of the Christian Bible into an Indigenous language. Its existence testifies to the coordinated efforts that eventually prohibited the Massachusett from speaking their own language, which died out. Green said he considers its preservation a “godsend,” though: “We’re using this Bible to reverse-engineer and relearn our ancestral tongue.”
Green also showed the Massachusett Tribe at Ponkapoag’s seal—an alteration of the seal of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which features an Indigenous man with an arrow pointing down in submission beneath a colonial arm with a broadsword. The modification, he explained, reversed the arrow, removes the arm, and adds symbolic elements of nature that speak to Indigenous sovereignty, including the three sisters (corn, beans, and squash) and the hills after which the Massachusett are named.
He encouraged students to visit the Massachusett Tribe at Ponkapoag’s website to learn more about local Indigenous history, and to fill out the contact form for a personal response to any questions.