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Who's Who Indigenous Massachusetts

Updated: Oct 7

[Update:10/7/2021Map key and list at bottom updated. MEAS thanks Mary Ellen Lepionka for her contribution regarding northeastern Massachusetts]


Between 1620 and 1675, less than a lifetime, an entire 14,000-year continuum of Indigenous culture was systematically pushed to the margins. Most Indigenous people in Massachusetts were killed by disease or genocide, enslaved by the thousands, while the men were mostly traded across to the Antilles, and/or driven out of their homeland to places like Schaghticoke and Odanak. Most of those people were never repatriated to their homes older than history. On the heels of that physical genocide, the renaming, building-over, and other erasures ramped up, and continue to this day.


[Cover image: First deed in Kwenitekwuk (Connecticut River Valley) from Agawam, showing details and the personal emblems of several sanchemanak and sonkisquaog.]


The impact of all this has been to obscure the many well-documented nations of Massachusetts, our languages and cultures. Why does identity matter? Identity is both a human right as expressed in the UN Declarations on Universal Human Rights and Rights of Indigenous Peoples (both signed by the USA), and a legal tool of sovereignty and historic preservation. Identity links to the few avenues of empowerment available to Indigenous people.


Identity of Indigenous people in Massachusetts has been fraught with misunderstanding since Tisquantum encountered Bradford and the Pilgrims in Nauset homelands on Cape Cod. Though Massassoit's Pneis (Tisquantum was a ritual priest by tradition associated directly with the sachem) already spoke English, and many Indigenous people quickly mastered English in turn, English did not reciprocate. One barrier was and is the relative grammatical complexity of Algonquian languages compared to the pidgin grammar of English. English speakers are disadvantaged in language skills due to the great simplification of its grammar.


[Check our blog - Getting in Touch: Peoples and Tribes of Massachusetts :https://www.ethicarch.org/post/getting-in-touch-peoples-and-tribes-of-massachusetts ]


Cultural aloofness is another factor in the language barrier. Colonizing people from England and elsewhere operated under ideas of superiority and entitlement that encouraged a dismissive and condescending attitude. The end result was that only a handful of Colonists ever learned to understand and speak any regional language effectively. Without mutual understanding, English and other colonial witnesses failed to correctly understand information being shared with them.


This becomes a big deal when identifying who is who, and how folks relate to one another. But this is just one issue obscuring Indigenous people of Massachusetts from view. Enter the massive upheavals of the several waves of epidemic carried by Colonists that emptied villages along Bay and Cape, and repeatedly carried away many souls as European diseases continued to ravage the Indigenous people.


As exposed by the biowarfare urgings of Jeffrey Amherst in two separate letters arising from two campaigns against regional Algonquian peoples, willful spreading of disease erased communities alongside massive land grabs. Despite being outlawed at the King's direction, land swindles and massive-scale squatting continued, culminating the the War of Removal, also known as King Philip's War in 1675.

Photo: 1681 portrait of unnamed Indigenous person as copied by Charles Osgood, original artist unknown.


Loss of community stability breaks down cultural transmission. Indigenous people were forced to move over and over in most cases, each time splintering communities, leaving some behind, and creating conflict within. People from different nations were forced by war and by government reservation systems to live in mixed communities. All these impacts served to undermine cultural continuity and identity.


Strong social traditions helped Indigenous people endure centuries of attacks on their culture and identity. However, legalisms regarding identity continue to undermine Indigenous communities as perpetuated by "the recognition system." State and federal recognition are both constructs of imperialism whose earliest use was to leverage one Indigenous nation against another. Recognition is pernicious to inter-tribal harmony and the main tool of erasure that has been applied to destroy - on paper - more than 300 Indigenous nations in America.


In Massachusetts, land deeds for most towns are recorded with details about who represented the local Indigenous people, and often, details on their relationships with one another. While the documents are far from a complete account of Indigenous relationships and political arrangements, they do document peoples and their leaders in real time, and these documents are approved by the General Court. The entirety of Western Massachusetts is documented in deed compiled under "Indian Land Deeds for Hamden County (Later Including Hampshire, Berkshire and Franklin Counties)." Though there are many problems with the legality and ethics of these deeds, they are troves of testimony about people and places. The deeds contain details that are elsewhere usually missing.


In the deeds are named at least 28 different nations who represented themselves through named agents, leaders, sanchemanak and sonkisquaog. Usually, a group of named leaders appears on each deed, and sometimes there is an explanation for inclusion of a particular person.


[Check our blog - Getting in Touch: Peoples and Tribes of Massachusetts :https://www.ethicarch.org/post/getting-in-touch-peoples-and-tribes-of-massachusetts ]


Massachusetts and the federal government recognize nothing like 28 Indigenous nations in the Commonwealth today. The federal government recognizes the Wampanoag in two bodies: Aquinnah and Mashpee.


The documented historic Indigenous nations of Massachusetts appear here:


Figure: Self-represented Indigenous peoples of Massachusetts as documented circa 1620-1660 CE, with dialects grouped in brackets: {Mahikan - 1. Horikan 2. Pachami 3. Wnahktituk 4. Nochpeem 28. Schaghticoke} {5. Nawaas} {6. Agawam} {“Quiripi,” "River Tribes" - 7. Woronok 23. Podunk 27. Tunxis or Masakok} {8. Nolwottog} {9. Pacomtuck} {10. Momecouse} {Nipmuk - 11. Lashawe 12. Quaboag 13. Nipnet 24. Quinnebessit 25. Wabaquassit} {14. Massachusett 15. Agawam 18. Wampanoag 19. Nauset 20. Pokanoket 21. Narragansett} {Abenaki - 16. Pennacook 17. Piscataqua 26. Sokoki 22.Agawam/Pawcatuck, Pennacook*}. Language isolates and those with undefined relationship are bracketed alone. *Both "Agawomes" and "Pawcatucks" are documented early identifications for the people of the Cape Ann area; represented by Papisseconewa, Pennacook Sogmo and pauwau (corrupted as Passaconaway in English), in early land negotiations.


Massachusetts does not recognize any Indigenous historic nation outside a few counties in the near-Bay area and Southeast. Massachusetts recognition deals with footprint of initial colonization and only those few people who converted to Christianity. Dr. Ives Goddard, leading linguist and ethnologist for Northeastern Algonquian peoples, found 6 different languages identifiable as documented nations in the Central Connecticut Valley of Massachusetts alone, as documented in 2016 Proceedings of the Algonquian Conference.


The Commonwealth informally recognizes the Chappaquiddick Tribe of the Wampanog Indian Nation., Chaubunagungamaug Band of the Nipmuck Nation, Webster/Dudley, Herring Pond Wampanoag Tribe, Hassanamessit Nipmuc Nation, , Pocasset Wampanoag Tribe, and Seaconke Wampanoag Tribe.




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