Nantucket must honor its Wampanoag history

Sarah Swenson, Editor-in-chief

Nantucket is a Wampanoag (also rendered Wôpanâak) name. Actually, it is a rough interpretation of a Wampanoag name: Nanticoke. Siasconset is a Wampanoag name. Wauwinet is a Wampanoag name. Tuckernuck, Madaket, Madequecham, Sesachacha, Quidnet—all “interpretations” of names given to these places by the native people of this land. We stole their land—so much as you can steal land from a people who do not believe land can be bought and sold—and we stole their names to boot. Look around, and you will find place after place where Wampanoag names linger.

I don’t believe that keeping the native names of these places is a bad thing; if anything, the preservation of Wampanoag names serves to act as a reminder of who presided upon this land before we arrived. But to truly honor the native people of Nantucket, we must educate the community on the island’s history, and make sure that native voices, stories, and culture are highlighted and celebrated. 

On June 5th, 2021, Nantucket passed a resolution to rename Columbus Day, the second Monday in October, as Indigenous Peoples’ Day. On this day, instead of celebrating a man whose legacy includes, but is not limited to, genocide, enslavement, rape, and colonization, Nantucket voted to commemorate the histories and cultures of Indigenous Peoples in the land that is now known as the United States.

November is Native American Heritage Month. This month is also meant to honor the people who lived here long before us. However, Nantucket takes action for neither month, nor day. In order to truly celebrate the Native Americans who lived on our island, changing the name of a day or setting aside a month is a good first step, but ultimately shallow if not backed by greater action and education that the community can engage in.

Black History Month (February), Juneteenth, Pride Month (June) both contain or are associated with events that can allow people to gather and celebrate their race or sexuality and gender identity respectively, and educational elements to these events, as they should.

This past Juneteenth (June 19th) and in days surrounding it, the Nantucket Atheneum had speakers who spoke about emancipation. The African Meeting House hosted an event on Juneteenth, featuring speeches, recitations, and music. An opinion article was published in the Inquirer and Mirror by Bianca M. Brown, a Black woman who later read Ernestine Johnson’s Poem The Average Black Girl at the African Meeting House as part of it’s Juneteenth celebration, about her experience with the holiday.

During 2021’s Black History Month, several groups on island did their best to educate people on the significance of setting aside a month for Black history, beit through a blog post, as the Atheneum did last year, a section in their history curriculum, as the Nantucket New School does in every grade, as does the Nantucket Public School system in some grades, or events hosted by the African Meeting House.

During Pride Month, individuals also come together for education—in June of 2021, this took the form of a virtual forum including participants from Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket (including the islands’ openly gay legislator Julian Cyr and the Nantucket High School’s own Sean Allen!)—and for a yearly pride march. In 2021, due to COVID restrictions, this was a car parade, following 2020’s tradition, which ended in a picnic in Tom Nevers Field, where members of Nantucket’s LGBTQ+ community gave speeches and read their own powerful writing regarding queerness and its overlap with neurodivergent identities.

I list all of these events not to say that any of them were too much, or to insult them in any way. I participated in some myself. I list them because they are examples of what should be done during November, or on the second Monday in October. Black people and LGBTQ+ people take action themselves, and are given the platform to speak and the respect to be heard. While the events I described are limited, they are more substantial than those for Native American Heritage Month, or on Indigenous People’s Day.

The most that I saw any group do for Native American Heritage Month was done by the high school, who placed images of Native American celebrities and historical figures and quotes said by them on hallway windows in the school. The school has done similar things for Black History Month, Pride Month, and Hispanic Heritage Month.

Though not directly a celebration of either heritage holiday, the Nantucket Historical Association has been working on adding more content regarding Native American history to their displays and resources. Resources available on the NHA website include research done by physicist, archaeologist, and anthropologist Dr. Elizabeth A. Little, a timeline of Native American history on the island written by Mary Lynne Rainey, added to the website in June of 2020, and collections of articles and videos on Native American history. There is also a search feature for artifacts at the NHA, which includes Native American artifacts. These are good steps taken by the NHA towards educating the public on the rich history of Wampanoag people on the island. 

But I believe that more could still be done, even at the high school. Native Americans should be taught about in class to a far greater extent than they are; their contributions and history could be highlighted in November. This wouldn’t just have to be in history class, it could take the form of a contextual unit in an English class, a project focusing on the art that Native Americans created in an art class, or educating students on the native wildlife of Nantucket in an environmental or biology class.

Some could argue that though important, Native American heritage is simply not a topic that can fit into a non-history class attempting to pack in as much material as possible to prepare students for an end of year exam. However, incorporating a new topic does not have to take away from the learning at all.

In my English class this year, we recently had a unit on 9/11 and rhetorical analysis. The point was not to make us memorize facts about 9/11, but give us consistent context for our analysis while weaving in information that enhances our knowledge of the world and its history. The same thing could be done with a unit on Native Americans in an English class.

I understand that this kind of change takes time. It may be difficult to find material that matches teachers’ needs. For some classes, a Native American unit around November would be easier to accomplish than it would be for others. An English teacher could decide that a smaller tribute, like an independent reading option relating to Indigenous people, would be a more attainable goal. Every student, from preschool to senior year of high school on Nantucket, should be in at least one class a year that significantly addresses Native American Heritage Month.

There are Native Americans who live on Nantucket, and there are members of the Wampanoag tribe who survive. They can try as much as they want to spread awareness on Nantucket, but if recognition is not given to them by the town, from major businesses and organizations, and from the community at large, if we do not give them the respect and the space to be heard, they cannot reach the whole island to effect real change or impart their stories and culture.

In other words, we listen.

And beyond listening, as people living on stolen land, it is our responsibility to actively try to understand the culture of the people who lived here before us. If the town, the high school, or the Nantucket Historical Association hosted educational or celebratory events for Native American Heritage Month or Indigenous People’s Day, this would be a big step towards giving the Wampanoags the respect they deserve.

What can you do?

Take this up with your teachers. Take it up with your parents and your friends. Reach out to an organization you feel could host an event to celebrate Wampanoag history on-island. Take your opinions to the town if you feel comfortable.

Write to a news outlet, like Veritas, the Nantucket Current, or the Inquirer & Mirror. You could send a letter to the editor, or request to write a thoughtful guest article, and share your thoughts with the island. The more people talk about it, the more likely it is that something will happen.

Veritas- veritas.nhs@gmail.com

Nantucket Current- webeditor@n-magazine.com

Inquirer & Mirror- newsroom@inkym.com

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