The Plimoth Patuxet Museums promise visitors an illuminating bicultural experience, bringing to life “the history of Plymouth Colony and the Indigenous homeland” through interpreters in period dress and re-created settlements of the Pilgrims and their Wampanoag neighbors.
But trouble appears to be brewing between the museums and the tribe, with some Wampanoag members calling for a boycott of the 75-year-old site, formerly known as Plimoth Plantation, amid long-festering concerns about Native American staffing, upkeep of the outdoor Wampanoag exhibit, and input into museum operations.
“You can talk a good game, but your talk is only as good as your actions,” said Camille Madison, a member of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head, a branch based on Martha’s Vineyard. “Their theory is great, but their practice is horrible.”
The Wampanoags’ dissatisfaction has been building for a decade, members say, but some believe a recent theft from the museum might be a sign of renewed tensions.
Last month, the chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe and another man were charged with allegedly stealing $10,000 worth of bulrush mats and bearskin rugs from a wetu, a traditional dome-shaped dwelling, at the museums’ Wampanoag exhibit.
Although the chairman, Brian Weeden, 30, of Mashpee, and his alleged accomplice have not spoken about the case, some Wampanoag members interviewed for this article did not dismiss the possibility that tribal frustrations could be connected to the theft.
“If there hadn’t been a breakdown of relationships, that’s not something that would have happened because the people who were there, the native folks, care about the place and would have protected it,” said Casey Figueroa, a former manager at the Wampanoag site where the items had been displayed.
“I’m not saying it’s justified, but I can definitely see why it happened,” said Figueroa, who worked at the museum between 1990 and 2015 and traces his Indigenous ancestry to Mexico. Figueroa, who lives in Plymouth, added that he has no direct knowledge about the alleged theft.
A Mashpee Wampanoag spokesman declined to comment on relations between the tribe and the museums or on the criminal case, which includes charges of breaking and entering in the nighttime, and felony larceny over $1,200,
“The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Council regards this as a personal matter. For that reason, the Tribal Council will have no further comment at this time,” said Steven Peters, the spokesman.
Ellie Donovan, executive director at Plimoth Patuxet, did not respond to a request for an interview.
However, in a September statement posted on their website, the museums lashed out at the proposed boycott, citing “allegation-filled articles and defamatory comments” in the local media and social media.
“In the wake of the pandemic that resulted in reduced revenue, understaffing, and other challenges, we are working hard to build back every facet of the museum’s programs and exhibits,” part of the lengthy statement read.
“We recognize how important it is to reflect the history and traditional knowledge of local and regional Indigenous people,” the statement added. “Over the years, we’ve been successful in this regard via our hiring practices, exhibits, digital content, educational outreach programs, and engagement efforts. But there’s always room for improvement.”
Weeden, who authorities said was identified by staff from surveillance video, is seen walking to and from the area of the wetu about 2 a.m., Nov. 7, and a passenger from the car is seen returning with what appear to be the mats and skins, according to a Plymouth police report.
Police said Weeden had denied being involved in the theft.
According to the police report, a museum employee told authorities on Nov. 8 that “there has been an ongoing problem between the tribe and museum regarding the hiring of more Native Americans. ... There were reports of tribe members harassing workers as recently as yesterday.”
The bulrush mats, which were hand-woven by Wampanoag members, and bearskins were shipped to a Plymouth police detective three weeks after the theft was reported.
Arraignments for Weeden and Phillip Hicks Jr., 30, of Mashpee are scheduled for Jan. 5 at Plymouth District Court. An attorney for Weeden could not be reached for comment.
The charges against Weeden, who took office in 2021 as the youngest chairman in Mashpee Wampanoag history, have roiled tribal affairs yet again. Weeden also is secretary of the Mashpee School Committee.
Former Mashpee Wampanoag chairman Glenn Marshall was sentenced to 3½ years in federal prison in 2009 after being convicted of embezzling $380,000 in tribal funds and making $60,000 in illegal campaign contributions. Weeden’s immediate predecessor, Cedric Cromwell, is appealing a three-year prison sentence for bribery related to a proposed Wampanoag resort and casino in Taunton.
The museum’s assertions that it values the importance of the Wampanoag exhibit were dismissed by several tribal members who have worked at the site. No more than four Native Americans work there now, they said, compared with 20 or more a dozen years ago.
“What was there before, I could easily call a world-class living-history exhibit. I wouldn’t be able to say that about it today,” said Paula Peters, a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe who worked as a college intern at the museum in the 1970s, became director of marketing in the mid-2000s, and left in 2011.
“I visited in October, and it was deplorable,” she said. “There was one wetu that had many, many holes in the bark covering. There was another wetu with just a frame, and the frame was broken. It looked very ramshackle, and it looked abandoned if not for the two interpreters who were there.”
“It was really shocking,” Peters added. “I saw evidence of debris that was visible” from the area near the wetu, including “a plastic tarp thrown in the wooded area. The garden was not being sufficiently tended. The museum had always prided itself on being bicultural.”
The museum, founded in 1947, changed its title to Plimoth Patuxet in 2020 to reflect the Wampanoag who lived there when the Pilgrims landed in 1620. The Patuxet, a band of the Wampanoag confederation, became decimated by infectious diseases, much of which had been transmitted by earlier English explorers.
A Mashpee tribal member who asked not to be identified said the museum has tried to downplay the Wampanoag side of the Pilgrim story.
“I remember being told that people didn’t want to hear the tough history that the Indians had experienced and this sort of thing,” the tribal member said. “From our experience, people did want to hear that, and to this day the desire has increased. It’s not about bashing Pilgrims. It’s got nothing to do with that.”
Wampanoag and museum officials are hoping to meet in the near future to discuss the tribe’s concerns. Much fence-mending will be required to repair a relationship that has frayed badly over the last decade, said Paula Peters, the former museum official.
“They need to be able to regain the trust of the community because they need the expertise of the Wampanoag weavers and Wampanoag wetu makers and the people who built that program,” she said.
“How are they going to maintain that exhibit in the manner in which it had been maintained and the manner in which we can be prideful about? How are they going to do that without the support of the Wampanoag community at large?” she asked.
Until satisfactory answers are received, Peters said, the call for a boycott will stand.
“The exhibit doesn’t portray us in the proud manner that we know we can be portrayed,” Peters said. “We won’t go.”
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at email@example.com.