One Landscape, Multiple Stories: Indigenous Ecological Knowledge in Southeastern Massachusetts

Driving west on Herring Pond Road in the Cedarville section of Plymouth, it may seem improbable that the landscape of two-story homes and boat ramps out the window constitutes anything other than suburban America. But this stretch of South Plymouth roadway also sits atop the ancient homeland of the Herring Pond Wampanoag Tribe, which is one of the core tribes of the Wampanoag Nation. Last week, Melissa Ferretti, the tribal chairwoman, gave me a tour of this patch of New England Indian Country.

Melissa showed me the tribe’s historic meeting house, built circa 1850, which is partially rented out the the New Life Baptist Church. We then went to Elmer Raymond Park, which sits at the heart of the tribe’s historic lands and beyond which is the Dina Path, a burial ground which was only recently returned to the Herring Pond tribe by the Town of Plymouth.

Meetinghouse on Herring Pond Road
Dina Path beyond Elmer Raymond baseball field.

Finally, we paid a visit to the the tribe’s other burial ground right next to Herring Pond. In addition to being a cemetery and a place of mourning, however, Melissa explained to me that the tribe has used the site for social functions and for gathering wild herbs, and that she even looked forward to coming to the burial ground while growing up.

Why am I writing about this on a website titled “Explore Natural Plymouth”? American Indians aren’t exotic wildlife, after all; contrary to centuries of Euro-American romanticization, people of Native ancestry aren’t inherently “closer to nature” by virtue of their blood quantum. As I touched on in my review of The Human Element, though, there is no single story of how human cultures relate to the landscapes they inhabit. The globalized Western perspective of viewing the natural environment through a reductionist Cartesian lens – that is, as an inert substrate that is discrete from humanity – is only one narrative amidst many. Most indigenous communities in the world today have retained the pre-industrial conception of the human realm as being enmeshed within a planetary ecological whole. It is no surprise, then, that 80% of the world’s biodiversity is found in indigenous territory, or that American Indian tribes are at the vanguard of adopting climate change resiliency and adaptation plans.

Globalized society needs narratives in which human culture is bound to a larger and deeper ecological continuum; where cemeteries can also be places of celebration and sustenance, or where sacred lands can lie just beyond a baseball diamond. The maelstrom of environmental crises that define the 21st century is the product of the mechanistic mindset of human separation from nature. Inculcating a sense of identity that is rooted in the organic palimpsest of living things that composes each landscape serves as an antidote to the story of separation.

In addition to the Herring Pond Tribe, southeastern Massachusetts’s Wampanoag presence is comprised of the Assonet Band of the Wampanoag Nation, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, and the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah). All of these communities have persisted despite this area being ground zero for the colonial American nation-state, and with them they have carried their particular stories of how they as people are consanguineous with the other-than-human world.

This regional ferment of indigenous continuity (and renewal) is why I have reached out to the Herring Pond Wampanoag Tribe and am trying to infuse SEMPBA’s conservation work with the insights of Native people. When trying to protect the entire coastal pine barrens ecoregion, it doesn’t hurt to engage a culture that has occupied said ecoregion for up to 10,000 years. In addition, SEMPBA is in dialogue with the Indigenous Resources Collaborative (IRC) – a group of Wampanoag and non-Native educators. Hopefully, a sustained synergy will emerge where SEMPBA, the IRC, and the Herring Pond Tribe will assist each other in our ecological and educational endeavors. 

It is not my place to force these collaborations into being, though. As a non-Native outsider, I can’t put indigenous groups on a pedestal and demand guidance from them (“Be our saviors!”). Instead, the Wampanoag partnerships SEMPBA has pursued have unfolded organically as we learn more about our partners, and vice versa. Goals such as shifting the dominant narrative and recognizing indigenous input may be admirable, but it’s ultimately up to America’s first people whether they want to engage us.

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