Presentation Notes: 2008-2009

Wampanoag History and Culture

Presented by Casey Figueroa - February 11, 2009

Notes by Carolyn Weiss

Casey Figueroa is the Assistant Manager of Education for the Wampanoag Area of Plimoth Plantation. He is part Apache but was born and raised in Massachusetts. Whenever he talks about the Wampanoag people, he speaks about what he has been taught by the Wampanoag and is very respectful of their culture.

Mr. Figueroa focused his talk primarily on the daily life of the Wampanoag and the importance of art in their lives. Art in the culture leads to a deeper understanding of that culture, according to Mr. Figueroa, especially where art is found in everyday objects such as apparel and jewelry.

Mr. Figueroa's moccasinsSharing a collection of personal articles he brought with him, Mr. Figueroa first described his moccasins, which were decorated simply with paint, but mentioned that moccasins were often decorated with bead or quill work. He then presented a pouch, decorated with porcupine quills and used to carry gear for fishing or fire making. The quills were first clipped, plant-dyed and then sewn to the leather. Mr. Figueroa produced a woven bag, also used to carry useful items, which was made from common plants such as basswood, corn husks, dogbane and false nettle. The cordage for the carrying strap was made from woven dogbane. He displayed a woven belt that had been dyed using bloodroot (for red), stag horn sumac (for yellow), black walnut, and pokeberry (for purple).

He also had a copper neckpiece and said that copper was native to the Boston area or available in trade with Great Lakes native people. Copper was occasionally used for knife blades. Later, the Europeans traded old brass kettles to the native people who used them for jewelry. The native people used objects for their own purposes, not necessarily the purposes for which the European people used them. An example he gave was the use of an axe head as a necklace.

Trading was very common among native American tribes. Mr. Figueroa gave the example of Cahokia, a huge trading center located near present day Collinsville, IL on the Mississippi River. Long before the arrival of the Europeans, Mr. Figueroa said, Cahokia was the largest native city north of Mexico and boasted 30,000 residents at its peak.

Mr. Figueroa brought two bead necklaces, one in cobalt glass (obtained by trade) and another with mother of pearl obtained from American coastal areas. The concept of trade was well developed by the native Americans. Tribes set up trade monopolies with other tribes and the Europeans. Quahog shells are found all over the country and were used for trade by the Eastern native people.

The native Americans were very active politically and met in groups of tribes to discuss what to do about the European invaders. From 1616-1618, a terrible plague hit the Eastern native people. Death usually came within 48 hours after contact and thousands of native Americans perished. Mr. Figueroa explained that the plague significantly changed the balance of power among the various native groups and was the reason that there were few native people when the Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth. Although the plague hit the Wampanoag, it did not affect the Narragansett, who were across the bay. This population depletion was the reason Massasoit had to sign a treaty with the Pilgrims.

According to Mr. Figueroa, to understand native history, one must understand European history. The native American culture began even before the European culture developed and therefore deserves respect from the non-natives. The native people were here for thousands of years before the first explorers arrived from Europe. He mentioned that products such as corn, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, chocolate and vanilla were used by native Americans well before the arrival of the first European.

Native American breechclothHolding up a painted breechcloth, Mr Figueroa explained that this was everyday clothing worn by men, but finely adorned. Various minerals were used as dyes for painting such as ochre (reds to yellows), charcoal, seashells and bone (for white) and robin's eggshells (for blue). These were mixed with a medium such as grease, fat or glue from skin or hooves and applied to cloth or leather. He then held up a necklace made of Venetian glass and carved soapstone beads that demonstrated how the traditional materials and newer imported products were combined artfully.

Mr. Figueroa said that native nations were separated by natural boundaries such as rivers or mountain chains. The native population was slow growing since native women normally had only two or three children, while European women had large families of perhaps eight or more children and required more and more land. The natives knew how much land they would need to sustain the population preventing the need for war to gain more land.

They also shared their resources (minerals, etc.) which also precluded the need to fight, according to Mr. Figueroa. The natives understood that it was better to solve differences peacefully since that would preserve both the people and the land. Disagreements were settled by diplomacy - gift giving, trades or games, in which the winner won the dispute. He described "football" games on the beach where hundreds of natives played and the goals were as much as a mile apart. The game would continue until one group scored a "goal" and therefore won the dispute.

Europeans didn't like the idea that they had to give a gift each time they made a request of the natives, according to Mr. Figueroa. Also, he said, native alliances changed all the time. The natives were practical and if the alliance didn't serve their purposes, they left to form another where the climate was more favorable to them.

Native peoples arrived on Cape Cod after the Ice Age and were here from 12,000 years ago. They derived from the Delaware people. Mr. Figueroa said that the natives picked up European languages rather quickly but the Europeans had difficulty learning native languages. The Wampanoag language was an oral language, similar to Asian languages in that symbols, rather than letters represented concepts. He explained that Jesse Little Doe Baird of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe has been working to codify the Wampanoag language by reassembling language structure, gender roles, etc.

According to Mr. Figueroa, the Wampanoag people learned to read and write English (including the women and girls) and used Wampanoag characters to write records of trials and deals. There are a lot of Wampanoag court records, written etiquette, etc., that exist today. A native bible was printed in the 1600s. Mr. Figueroa said that dialects did exist and there were differences between the dialect of the Cape and the dialects of the Island natives.

See the Presentation Notes Index for summaries of other presentations given at the Society's monthly meetings.