New Coin Honors Wampanoag Nation

New Coin Honors Wampanoag Nation

By: 
Gale Courey Toensing
4/1/11

PLYMOUTH, Mass.—Hundreds of people filled the Plimoth Plantation visitor center on a bright early spring day to celebrate the unveiling of the U.S. Mint’s 2011 Native American $1 coin. The new coin honors a treaty between the Wampanoag Nation and English settler colonists that changed the lives of indigenous peoples forever and set the stage for the creation of a new nation state—the United States of America.

Around 500 people flocked to Plimoth Plantation on March 25 where the first settlers put down roots. They participated in a ceremony of prayers and speeches, took photos, and got to be the first owners of the newest edition of the U.S. Mint’s Native American coin series. Beginning in 2009, the mint began issuing $1 coins featuring designs celebrating the important contributions made by Indian tribes and individual Native Americans to the history and development of the United States. The program was created by the Native American $1 Coin Act, Public Law 110-82. The obverse or “heads” side depicts the central figure of the "Sacagawea" design first produced in 2000 and contains the inscriptions LIBERTY and IN GOD WE TRUST. The reverse or “tails” side changes each year and contains the inscriptions $1 and UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.

This year’s tails side depicts the hands of Sachem Ousamequin, known as Massasoit, of the Wampanoag Nation and Governor John Carver as they share a ceremonial peace pipe after completing the historic 1621 treaty. The peace treaty is considered to have assured the survival of the Plymouth colony.

The agreement in which both parties promised not to "doe hurt" to one another was the first treaty between an American Indian nation and a group of European settler colonists. According to the treaty, if a Wampanoag broke the peace, he would be sent to Plymouth for punishment; if a colonist broke the law, he would likewise be sent to the Wampanoags. At its core, the treaty was a defensive agreement in which the Wampanoags and settlers promised to aid each other. “If any did unjustly war against him (Ousamequin), they would aid him; if any did war against them, he should aid them. He should send to his neighbors confederates to certify them of this, that they might not wrong them, but might be likewise compromised in the conditions of peace.” The treaty lasted more than 50 years until almost all the indigenous nations of the northeast were ensnared in the most brutal of Indian wars—King Philip’s War—which almost exterminated the Wampanoags and the many small indigenous nations of what came to be known as “southern New England.”

This year’s coin celebration had added nuance and significance for the Wampanoag people. The celebration—and the gold-toned coin that’s larger than a quarter—represent a long-awaited and much-deserved acknowledgment of the indigenous people who first welcomed and helped the earliest European settlers to the “New World” and who managed to survive more than 400 years of near annihilation, oppression in the form of land grabs, racism, and genocide at the hands of the colonists they had helped.

The trauma of settler colonialism, in which land is the key resource expropriated by the settlers, lingers in the lives of Wampanoag people, Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Chairman Cedric Cromwell said.

“The Wampanoag people were systematically killed, sold into slavery, forced into praying towns, split from our families and driven from our homes. Our traditional beliefs and language we no longer welcome. Our right to care for our families through fishing and hunting—how we had survived for thousands of years, and how we helped the Pilgrims survive—was taken away. Our people’s ability to utilize our natural resources, remain on our ancestral homeland, and practice our way of life was stripped from us. But still we persevered,” Cromwell said.

The Wampanoag citizens still struggle with unemployment, housing, health and social issues that result from poverty, Cromwell said, but the most pressing issue is the lack of land. Although the Wampanoags are a federally acknowledged Indian nation, the tribe’s application to the Interior Department to take hundreds of acres of land into trust as an initial reservation has been tangled in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court’s misguided 2009 Carcieri ruling that the Interior secretary has no authority to take land into trust for tribes “not under federal jurisdiction” when the Indian Reorganization Act was passed in 1934.

The standing-room-only event began with an honor song by the Eastern Sons Drummers and Singers and a prayer by Jessie Little Doe Baird, a linguist who was awarded a $500,000 MacArthur Fellows Grant last fall honoring her 17 years of work to reclaim the Wampanoag language. Addressing the Creator, Little Doe Baird’s prayer said, in part, “We ask you that every single day we only see what is just and right and that we only do the good things.”

Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, chairwoman of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), told the crowd of tribal elders, members, state officials and school children that the Wampanoag people have “endured through hundreds of years of oppression and miscommunication, and here we stand today with the opportunity for a new beginning. As a Wampanoag Indian and contemporary American, I’m personally happy that a contribution made by our Wampanoag ancestor and a sachem himself that led to the very beginning of the birth of this country is finally being recongized and incorporated into the general consciousness of the American public and world wide.”

Other speakers included B.B. Craig, the U.S. Mint’s Associate Director for Sales and Marketing, and Jim Adams, senior historian of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian.

As a grand finale to the speeches, Cromwell, Andrews-Maltais and Craig poured 2,000 Wampanoag coins into three beautifully decorated gourd bowls. Then children 18 years old and younger received a newly minted coin to commemorate the event and adults in the audience exchanged cash for the new coin.

“It’s an amazing day,” Cromwell told Indian Country Today Media Network as the crowd milled about. “Money is the resource of America and the world now and used for purchasing and power. I look at it as an example of how all our natural resources have been converted to the wealth of this country, and how the settlers created a capitalistic society and capitalized off the land of Indian tribes and off those resources.”

The 1621 treaty is also an example of how peace and prosperity were broken, Cromwell said. “My hope is the coin will educate people about those natural resources coming back to my people—starting with land. You’ve got to have land to have resources and build upon those resources with education for the future generations. I think we should partake of those resources and all the aboriginal rights that my ancestors were deprived of.”

It’s about land and recognition, Cromwell said. “I hope that this coin will become a national vehicle about who the Mashpee Wampanoag people are. Most people think there are no Native Americans east of the Mississippi. We’ve been here long and strong over ten thousand years on our aboriginal lands that were stolen from us. We’re still here,” Cromwell said.

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