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MUSEUMS

More than name change may be needed at former Plimoth Plantation

“We thought our name doesn’t reflect the balance of the story we tell,” said spokesperson Kate Sheehan.
“We thought our name doesn’t reflect the balance of the story we tell,” said spokesperson Kate Sheehan.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

PLYMOUTH — In July, Plimoth Plantation released a statement of intent to change its name to Plimoth Patuxet Museums.

The announcement came as Black Lives Matter protests decried centuries of injustice toward people of color — including the slaughter and disenfranchisement of Indigenous people across North America. The announcement noted national “painful discussions” coming at “an inflection point in our history.”

“But, especially in these times, that is what museums are called to do,” it said.

Kate Sheehan, associate director, media relations & marketing at Plimoth Patuxet, said the museum, founded in 1947 by Henry Hornblower, “was always committed to telling the story of both the Wampanoag and the English. The form that has taken has evolved.

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“We thought our name doesn’t reflect the balance of the story we tell,” she said. “Elevating the Indigenous name was essential.”

The name change is having a soft launch, due to COVID 19. A new logo celebrates 2020 as the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ arrival. They anchored off Provincetown in November 1620, and first set foot in Patuxet, the Wampanoag land already rechristened Plymouth by traders, in December. They arrived in a place beset by hardship, where plague had decimated the Wampanoag, who were threatened by neighboring tribes.

The living-history museum has been a faithful steward of a complicated history since it was founded. Its focus is the relatively peaceful alliance between the English and the Wampanoag in the 1620s, digging deep — literally, with archeology — into the material culture of the two communities.

Staying in that lane, it largely avoids bigger questions about colonialism and the quashing of Indigenous societies. Questions that today are too pressing to be ignored.

David Silverman, a history professor at George Washington University and author of “This Land is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving,” said the museum has a tough needle to thread.

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“I don’t envy their leadership,” Silverman said. “They can’t win. If they tell the people the story warts and all, few people will pay to bring their kids there.”

“Honest history offends just about everybody,” he added. “The 17th century was a brutal time. At any given time, you’d walk into Plymouth Colony and there would be several Native heads outside the gate. You could walk into a Wampanoag community and see scalps flying over a residence. It’s a barbaric time by our standards. Not for family consumption.”

Richard Pickering, Plimoth Patuxet’s deputy executive director and chief historian, said the museum has taken a different approach.

“You need to look at the moment,” said Pickering. “There are moments of equipoise, and of conflict and loss, and every one of those moments you should be able to look at like a slice of pie, on its own.” And Plimoth Patuxet’s slice was comparatively harmonious.

More violent episodes, he said, must be treated with care.

“There are things we can speak about with guests, but would be too shocking to represent,” he said.

Part of what visitors learn at Plimoth Patuxet has to do with the nature of a living-history museum — conversation is driven by visitors.

“How do we greet people where they are,” said Sheehan, “and get them a little further down that thought-provoking path?”

Museum educator Tim Turner led a group inside the nush wetu (or winter house) this month at Plimoth Patuxet Museums. “We have the longest living-history Indigenous program in the US,” said Darius Coombs, who leads the museum's Wampanoag scholarship and performance initiatives.
Museum educator Tim Turner led a group inside the nush wetu (or winter house) this month at Plimoth Patuxet Museums. “We have the longest living-history Indigenous program in the US,” said Darius Coombs, who leads the museum's Wampanoag scholarship and performance initiatives.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Historically, Plimoth Patuxet has been ahead of the game regarding Indigenous representation.

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“We have the longest living-history Indigenous program in the US,” said Darius Coombs a Mashpee Wampanoag tribe member and director of Wampanoag and eastern woodlands performance, research, and interpretive training at the museum.

The museum’s Wampanoag Homesite opened in 1973. While Pilgrim interpreters in the English Village are frozen in the 1620s, Native interpreters take the span of history into their narratives.

“We’re here to tell the full story,” said Coombs. It’s available — you must know to ask.

Still, as I wandered the grounds and toured the museum displays recently, some larger context was missing. The story felt sanitized.

After all, a history of conflict still plays out on the ground in Plymouth. In 2018 the federal Department of the Interior decided that the government could not hold Mashpee Wampanoag reservation land in trust. This past June, US District Court Judge Paul L. Friedman ordered the government to reconsider, calling the decision “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, and contrary to law.”

The 2018 move was another in a colossal chain of governmental betrayals over centuries — one reason Indigenous people commemorate a National Day of Mourning on Thanksgiving. That tradition started in the town in 1970, when Massachusetts officials invited Wampanoag leader Wamsutta, also known as Frank James, to be among the speakers at the 350th anniversary of the Pilgrims' arrival.

Planners didn’t like the text of his speech and scripted him a cheerier one.

Wamsutta quit the event and read his speech on Cole’s Hill, near a statue of Massasoit Sachem, or Ousamequin, the 17th-century leader of the Wampanoags who built the alliance with the Pilgrims. National Day of Mourning protests continue in Plymouth on Thanksgiving each year.

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The Pilgrims' arrival in Massachusetts is an American origin story: Immigration to escape religious persecution; perseverance through a miserable winter; a fruitful, if not always easy, diplomatic alliance between Native and European people. A Thanksgiving feast.

“It’s a romanticized version of what actually happened,” said Paula Peters, a Mashpee Wampanoag historian and co-owner of SmokeSygnals, an Indigenous-owned creative/communications company. “Boots on the ground were a lot dirtier.”

Peters was on the board of Plymouth 400, a nonprofit that produces events and programming commemorating the quadricentennial, many of which have gone virtual this year. The agency’s offerings nimbly embrace the larger Wampanoag story, with all its difficulties.

There are no scalps flying or heads on pikes, but the programming is broader than Plimoth Patuxet’s. “Here it Began: 2020 Hindsight – or Foresight,” a free, weeks-long online conference about Indigenous history organized with the Wampanoag Advisory Council and Bridgewater State University, wraps up this weekend. (It’s not too late to register.)

The Thanksgiving story is “a romanticized version of what actually happened,” said Paula Peters, a Mashpee Wampanoag historian and the museum's former public relations director.
The Thanksgiving story is “a romanticized version of what actually happened,” said Paula Peters, a Mashpee Wampanoag historian and the museum's former public relations director.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

“Plymouth 400 is doing the work,” said Peters. That includes “'Our' Story: 400 Years of Wampanoag History,” Peters’s series of affecting videos. They date the Pilgrim story to 1614, when a Patuxet man, Tisquantum, was among 27 Indigenous men kidnapped by an English sea captain to be sold as slaves in Spain. Tisquantum later made it home and helped broker the relationship between the English and the Wampanoag.

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Peters, who was director of public relations at Plimoth Plantation for five years until 2011, said she’s glad to see the name change. “It’s an important correction,” she said.

Plimoth Patuxet tells the Tisquantum story, in text, as part of its museum display. It’s spare and factual, but lacks affect. And that’s the problem. There are many ways to tell a story; one that involves abduction and enslavement needs to be fleshed out.

Still, Plimoth Patuxet is expanding its time range, thanks to a recent National Endowment for the Humanities grant funding a new interpretive plan called “Along the Shores of Change.”Programming will span 1600 to 1692, when Plymouth Colony was absorbed by the Massachusetts Bay Colony. A new online Thanksgiving activity for children, “You are the Historian,” explores Patuxet before Europeans arrived.

Pickering said the museum’s aim is to not look back and judge.

“What is the human story here? How can we celebrate its joys and mourn and explore its losses?” he asked. “Not look away, but look with empathy?”

And he’s right. After all, the Pilgrims didn’t know what was coming — not for themselves, for their Wampanoag neighbors, or for this continent. And theirs is really only a small part of that story.

Still, 400 years on, it seems our responsibility to reflect that the Pilgrims' arrival was also an inflection point. Everything changed. And not all for the good.

Plimoth Patuxet Museums

Closing for the season on Nov. 29. At 137 Warren Ave., Plymouth. 508-746-1622, www.plimoth.org

Plymouth 400

www.plymouth400inc.org


Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.