When Linda Coombs, Aquinnah Wampanoag historian, scholar, educator and artist, appeared at the New England American Studies Association’s (NEASA) annual meeting this fall, she captured her audience by beginning her presentation with a joke. “Everybody knows that April showers bring May flowers. But what do Mayflowers bring?” Coombs said. The answer? “Pilgrims!”
The subject of pilgrims and Thanksgiving are particularly significant to the Wampanoag people who were the first to come in contact with the fleets of settler colonists who invaded the shores of the Wampanoag territory in what became Massachusetts. Coombs spent three decades with the Wampanoag Indigenous Program at Plimoth Plantation, serving as the program’s associate director for 15 years. She has written several essays documenting colonial history from a Native American perspective and is a frequent speaker about the need for more accurate representations of colonial events including the first Thanksgiving and Columbus Day. She is director of the Aquinnah Cultural Center at the tribe’s island homeland on what is now known as Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, where she was born and grew up. She lives with her family in the Mashpee Wampanoag community on Cape Cod. She talked with Indian Country Today Media Network about Thanksgiving and the upcoming 400th anniversary of the arrival of the pilgrim settler colonists on Wampanoag territory.
What’s your take on Thanksgiving; what do you do?
Well, years ago everyone used to go to the National Day of Mourning in Plymouth and it still goes on, but it’s changed over the years. They’ve included black issues and gender issues and Latino issues, which in and of itself is fine except all of those groups have so many more people than we do—far more than Native Americans as a whole, so I think that day should have been kept just as a Native day because our issues get lost in the larger tsunami [of injustices]. Some people still go… On Martha’s Vineyard, I think if people celebrate it at all, it’s to have a turkey dinner with family. You could talk to 10 people and get 10 different answers. There are people who think similarly to me that the whole concept of Thanksgiving as it’s generally seen or practiced in this country is kind of like a superficial layer over what’s really on the ground. I think a lot of people get that.
What do you think is the most egregious misunderstanding about Thanksgiving?
Probably that it’s perceived that we welcomed them. Yeah, they think we were just standing there waiting for them and welcoming [them] and one guy handed them the turkey and another guy handed them the carving knife and they all went to dinner—it’s just ridiculous! What really happened was there was no contact with them for six months. But we were watching them and seeing what they were doing. And it was Samoset who was from Maine and was down visiting who made the first contact—I always figured they sent the guy from out of town to do it! But then there was a feasting event the next fall that’s been interpreted as the first Thanksgiving. But it wasn’t even dubbed that till the 19th century.
What did you do at the Plimoth Plantation?
Over the years I held various titles. I started out as an interpreter and an artisan because in the Wampanoag Program we get to learn the 17th century technologies and skills because the staff creates the outdoors exhibit. Over the years I did foodways, and collections management and horticulture and wardrobe. At one point I oversaw the education component and then in 1996 I became the associate director.
When did you leave, and why?
I was laid off in 2010.
Let’s talk turkeys!
The way I look at the whole turkey thing is turkeys are one of our indigenous birds here, so I have no problem eating turkey any day of the year. They were one of the things we could get on a year-round basis. Squash, cranberries—all that comes from us.
But non-Natives don’t know that or they don’t think about that.
No, they don’t.
At the NEASC meeting you said there isn’t much Native representation in the planning for the 400th anniversary of the landing of the pilgrims at Plymouth Rock.
Yes, the 2020 event. When I wrote that [NEASC] speech I looked up the website and it was all pilgrim focused. The only mention of Natives was that Natives have lived here for thousands of years. To me that’s just the thinking of a very large number of American people. That committee [planning the 400th anniversary events] started back in 2007 and there were 27 members on it and there were two Wampanoag people. And after a few years they both left. My impression is every time they suggested some Native component they were shot down, disregarded, glazed over. A Cherokee guy and an Aquinnah guy joined them a few years ago. In a conversation I had with the Cherokee guy he was saying, ‘Oh, we can have a powwow! We can have the Wampanoag Nation singers and dancers.’ And I’m thinking, what? Our part in this whole thing is going to be to sing and dance for them? After 400 years? Come on!
This isn’t about bashing pilgrims, which is something I’ve been accused of in a circuitous way. When I was younger working at the Plantation we used to say some pretty sassy things like, ’Oh, the English only bathed twice a year’—which I think was true—and I would add, ‘whether they needed it or not.’ And then I realized that’s not good interpretation at all. And if I’m going to talk about English hygiene practices I need to be as accurate as I am when I talk about Wampanoag practices, because there are enough distortions in history and people don’t always get the humor and sarcasm. That was one lesson I learned and I’ve always since worked toward that end—to be truly representational. On the other hand, when the English came here there are things that happened because they came here and they did hold certain attitudes toward us and had certain intentions. And I don’t think it’s right to cover it up and say, oh, they all sat down and had a lovely turkey dinner and lived happily ever after.
The 2020 website says: ‘Be a part of Plymouth turning 400! Rediscover the partnership formed between the Wampanoag Nation and the Pilgrims… It’s an American story and a national legacy.’
Oh God! Those are the words that are so phony!
Are they really or is it just the way the dominant society sees things?
Well, the way they see it or want to see it—or both. It’s just time to be inclusive, you know?
What can be done about educating people about history?
I’m not sure I have an answer. Sometimes it just gets lost in the wind, you know? But—and it’s not just me—we’re not giving up. We write, we speak, we teach classes, we work through the museums we work at, and just try to reach people that way. We don’t count in the everyday life of America and I think that’s a perception that has to change.