PLYMOUTH, Mass. – Native Americans in Massachusetts are calling for a boycott of a popular living history museum featuring colonial reenactors depicting life in Plymouth, the famous English settlement founded by the Pilgrims who arrived on the Mayflower.
Members of the state’s Wampanoag community and their supporters say the Plimoth Patuxet Museum has failed on its promise to create a “bicultural museum” that equally tells the story of the European and Indigenous peoples who live there.
They say that ” Historic Patuxet homestead,” the portion of the mostly outdoor museum that focuses on traditional indigenous life is undersized, in need of repair, and staffed by non-local tribesmen.
“We’re saying don’t patronize them, don’t work there,” said Camille Madison, a member of the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe on Martha’s Vineyard, who recently vented her frustration on social media. “We don’t want to engage with them until they find a way to respect indigenous knowledge and experience.”
The concerns come just two years after the museum changed its name from Plimoth Plantation to Plimoth Patuxet as part of a year-long celebration of the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower landing.
At the time, the museum said the moniker “new, more balanced” reflected the importance of the indigenous perspective to the educational mission of the 75-year-old institution.
‘Patuxet’ was an indigenous community near ‘Plimoth’, as the pilgrimage colony was called, before it became present-day Plymouth. When the Mayflower arrived it was badly decimated by European diseases, but one of its survivors, Tisquantum, commonly known as Squanto, helped the English colonists survive their first winter.
“They changed the name but not the attitude,” said Paula Peters, a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe who worked at the museum for nearly 20 years, most recently as director of marketing. “They did nothing to ingratiate themselves with the tribes. Every step they take is deaf.”
Museum spokesman Rob Kluin, in a statement emailed to The Associated Press, said the museum had expanded the Wampanoag outdoor exhibit, raised more than $2 million for a new building for Indigenous programs and ” taken several initiatives” to recruit and retain employees from Native communities. He declined to elaborate further.
The statement also cited two grants the museum received to improve its Native American education program. This included more than $160,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities to host a workshop for teachers this summer explaining how to integrate Indigenous voices into their history classes.
The museum also noted that its new director for Algonquian Exhibits and Interpretation is an Aquinnah Wampanoag who serves on his tribe’s education committee.
Carol Pollard, whose late brother Anthony “Nanepashemet” Pollard played a key role in the development of the museum’s Indigenous programs as the leading Wampanoag historian, was among those dismayed at the state of the site.
Last week, large gaps in the dented bark roof of the large wetu, or traditional Wampanoag dwelling, which is a focus of the indigenous exhibit, were visible. Neither of the two museum interpreters on site wore traditional tribal clothing. Meanwhile, in the Pilgrim Settlement section of the museum, the thatched roofs of the colonial houses had recently been repaired and numerous re-enactors were milling around in detailed period outfits.
“I know my brother would be very disappointed,” said Pollard, who also worked as a gardener at the museum until last summer. “I guarantee you, people in khakis and navy blue tops were not my brother’s vision.”
For years, former museum employees say museum officials have ignored their proposals to modernize and expand the outdoor exhibit, which celebrates its 50th anniversary next year.
This, coupled with low pay and poor working conditions, led to the departure of many longtime local employees, making the program a must-see attraction by showcasing authentic indigenous farming, cooking, canoe-building and other cultural practices, they say.
“For more than a decade, the museum has been systematically dismantling the outdoor exhibit,” the Wampanoag Consulting Alliance, an Aboriginal group that includes Peters and other former museum employees, said in a statement late last month. “Many steps taken to present the Wampanoag programs on an equal footing have been removed and the physical exhibit is in a deplorable state. The result has been the virtual alienation of Wampanoag communities.”
Kitty Hendricks-Miller, a Mashpee Wampanoag who was the curator of the Wampanoag exhibits in the 1990s and early 2000s, says she worries about what non-Indigenous families and students take away from their visits to the museum that remain a school trip is a rite of passage for many in New England.
As the Indian education coordinator for her tribe, she encourages teachers to reach out directly to indigenous communities when seeking culturally and historically accurate programs.
“There’s this reluctance to acknowledge that times have changed,” said Casey Figueroa, who worked as an interpreter at the museum for years until 2015. they face today, from immigration to racism to climate change, but they’ve gone backwards instead. They totally screwed it up.”
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