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‘Sacred to our tradition:’ How Mashpee girls’ basketball has embraced Wampanoag heritage and culture within the community

Before the opening tip against South Shore rival Hull last Friday night, the Mashpee girls' basketball team circled drummers from the Eastern Sun Singers at the Mashpee Wampanoag Community and Government Center.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

MASHPEE — Before the Mashpee High girls’ basketball team tipped off against Hull Friday night, the Falcons held hands in a circle at center court. Enclosed was another circle with seven members of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe’s Eastern Sun Singers.

The Eastern Sun Singers broke into two songs: one of pride for the Mashpee community, and an honor song for Ryan Hendricks, a former Mashpee Wampanoag student-athlete who was killed in a car accident last October. The group’s verses and the thumping sounds of their center drum echoed around the Mashpee Wampanoag Community and Government Center as a crowded audience watched in reverent silence.

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“Honestly, it felt sacred — it felt sacred to our tradition,” said Mashpee senior Hialeah Turner-Foster.

Amiyah Peters (center), a senior captain on the Mashpee High girls' basketball team and member of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, stands linked with her teammates for the national anthem. It was preceded by pregame ceremony that included a solemn Mashpee Wampanoag tribal circle. "“I feel like we are the team that shows more of our culture and our traditions,” Peters said. Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

The Mashpee girls’ basketball team has a unique relationship with the town and the tribe. About three-fourths of the players are members of the Wampanoag tribe or other indigenous groups around New England. That includes Turner-Foster and cousin Amiyah Peters, two of the three 1,000-point scorers in program history.

The seniors have become figureheads for Mashpee, helping to revitalize a struggling team while also becoming young leaders within their tribe.

“I feel like we are the team that shows more of our culture and our traditions,” Peters said. “Every single year is different, every day is different, but at the end of the day, we all bring it back to one community. And it’s not always the tribal community, it’s just our Mashpee community in general.”

Members of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe chant and conduct a tribal drum ceremony before a recent Mashpee High girls' basketball game against the visiting Hull Pirates at the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe community center.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Peters, a 5-foot-3-inch point guard, became the Mashpee Wampanoag Pow Wow Princess last Fourth of July weekend and carries the title for one year. She attends gatherings ranging from local Wampanoag socials to a Unity Conference in Minnesota with more than 2,000 youth representatives from tribes around the country.

“I was kind of shocked at some tribes and how different they can be, but also how similar they could be,” Peters said. “It comes down to how they smudge, how they dance, different footsteps during their dance styles — everything is not always the same, and it was a big eye-opener.”

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‘I’m so happy for them. They’ve done such a great job, They brought eyes upon a community that everyone thought disappeared.’

Shani Turner, mother of Hialeah Turner-Foster on her daughter's basketball team's embrace of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe and its culture

Turner-Foster serves with Peters on the tribe’s youth council and has accompanied her cousin to several delegations. When the two first joined the girls’ basketball team, it rarely preceded games with tribal ceremonies. Now they sage the court before every game, and for marquee contests, invite tribal leaders to perform a drum circle or prayer circle. On rare occasions, they leave their Mashpee High court behind to play in the Wampanoag community gym.

Amiyah Peters (right), the 2022 Mashpee Wampanoag Pow Wow Princess, shares a moment Yvonne Avant (left), a Mashpee Wampanoag tribe councilwoman, before the Falcons' home game against Hull at the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe community center.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

“We were a very young team and none of us really spoke too much and spoke up about our culture, and a lot of other traditions that come along with it,” Peters said. “But now that we’re older and we’re like the oldest on the team, I feel like it’s easier to communicate.”

Second-year coach Jazz Silva has opened her mind to her team’s culture. Mashpee won just four games the year before Silva arrived. The Falcons finished 17-8 in 2021-22 and are off to an 8-3 start this season. Peters is 78 points away from the program scoring record.

“I’m just honored that they welcomed me into their culture,” Silva said. “It’s been a journey and I can’t be prouder to be a part of it.”

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Second-year girls' basketball coach Jazz Silva, pumping up her team before its game against Hull, has relished her team's participation in the recognition of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe before home games. "I'm just honored they welcomed me into their culture," Silva said.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Carlton Hendricks, vice chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe and the father of freshman Ciara Hendricks, frequently travels to support the Falcons on the road. Hendricks is in awe of the “electrifying” home crowds.

Turner-Foster’s mom, Shani Turner, descends from the Wampanoag tribe and Nipmuc nation. She’s an avid supporter in a fandom that made the two-hour trek to Wahconah during a snowstorm last March, where 15th-seeded Mashpee upset second-seeded Wahconah, 47-45, in the Division 4 state tournament.

Mashpee's Hialeah Turner-Foster (right) drives to the basket a against Hull defender during a recent girls' basketball game at the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe community center in Mashpee.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

“I’m so happy for them. They’ve done such a great job,” Turner said. “They brought eyes upon a community that everyone thought disappeared.”

Brian Weeden, Peters’ brother-in-law, is chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe and watches over the 3,000-member body. Weeden recalled learning from the great Wampanoag chief Earl “Flying Eagle” Mills about the days of inter-tribe basketball during the mid-20th century. He’s also on the school committee and has helped lead a collaborative effort to place Mashpee’s Native American roots at the forefront of education.

Community members from the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe have joined non-native fans in turning out cheer for the Mashpee High girls' basketball team, led by senior captains and tribe members Hialeah Turner-Foster and Amiya Peters. "A lot of the other tribes are kind of smaller, but the sense of community here has always been strong,” said Brian Weeden, chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribal council.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

“Mashpee has been one of the largest Native communities and existences in this region forever,” he said. “A lot of the other tribes are kind of smaller, but the sense of community here has always been strong.”

Those efforts extend to the basketball team, where non-Native members like senior Stella Stecei appreciate the importance of rituals and traditions.

“It’s honestly been such a cool experience, and I’m so glad that I grew up here,” she said. “It just really opened my eyes to so many different cultures and all the different perspectives and everything.”

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Amiyah Peters (above), a 5-foot-3-inch senior point guard, said he is happy to do her part to bring Mashpee girls' basketball to the masses by making a connection with her Mashpee Wampanoag tribal members.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Peters says that while any Mashpee game brings a home-court advantage, those rare occasions to play in the Wampanoag community gym carry a special feeling of home. When the Falcons suit up, they represent a community that has been underrepresented for centuries — but a whole town and tribe has their back.

“I feel amazing that I’m in this position to do my part. I know I can only do my part,” Peters said. “But as I go through, especially as the Pow Wow Princess, and even just as a tribal member myself, I will just do as much as I can to give back to my community as what they gave me.

“As years go on, we’ve lost many things. We lost our land at one point. But we’re all bringing it back. As long as our community plays their part and everybody plays their part, we could make a difference.”

With the support from the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, the Mashpee High girls' basketball team celebrate a win over the visiting Hull Priates at the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe community center.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff