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A Story of Mashpee Land, Food, and Sovereignty

Buddy Pocknett had been fishing the canal that day, pulling up lobster pots like he had been doing since he could walk. Like his father before him and the generations before, Buddy lived from the land. Like Buddy, his father Vernon was one of our beloved men, a fisherman and a hunter who, I imagine, may have never bought a pound of meat from a store. When electricity came to Mashpee, the Pocknett home didn’t want none of it; Vernon’s father thought it would make them dependent on the outside world. Vernon was raised with kerosene lamps and a wood burning stove – with game meat and a vegetable garden. Vernon raised his kids the same. So that day, Buddy had been out fishing the canal when he came in to the docks the fishwarden was there waiting.

Mashpee people have aboriginal fishing rights, but local officials oftentimes resent when tribal members exercise their right to fish, unregulated by the county or state. The fish warden decided to measure the lobsters and found one that, in his estimation, was too small. He told Buddy he was going to take his entire catch for the day because of this slight infraction, but Buddy said if he was not going to eat what he caught, the fishwarden was certainly not going to feed them to his family that night, either. So he dumped the lobsters back into the canal. The fish warden then pepper sprayed, beat, and arrested Buddy for fishing the way he had been doing since he learned to walk.

The legal process took some time, but eventually Buddy was vindicated by the courts and cleared of all charges. As he arrived home from court, the paperwork for the case in his back pocket, three police cruisers pulled into his driveway behind him, lights flashing. The officers didn’t even question him; they simply attacked Buddy, beating him to the ground and stomping on his knees in front of his wife and small children. They beat him in his own driveway for harvesting a lobster that may or may not have been too small over a month before. The whole time, Buddy pleaded with the officers to look in his back pocket to read the release of the warrant issued from the court less than an hour before. Old wounds were torn open; that night, the community found itself gathered in resistance in front of the police station in a town that has sought to displace our tribe from our ancestral land for many, many years.

So often native people in the Americas are defined solely by their relationship to the colonizer’s story. Rarely are we defined in terms of our own story. As Wampanoag people we share in the very origin stories of this country, the United States. We are “the  Indians”  who saved  the  Pilgrims from  starvation  and  taught  them how to grow corn. But our particular tribe is not important to the colonial narrative, though for us our distinct Wampanoag identity is very much a part of our story. The story of the first Thanksgiving for my ancestors in the 17th century is just one part in a complicated, inter-woven tale of alliances, deception, war and betrayal.  

We are the Mashpee Wampanoag. Our tribe is building a casino. To do that, we need to establish a federal trust. To the white residents of Taunton Massachusetts our effort to establish a land trust is just a political maneuver to build the casino. But they have our story backwards: the only way for us to recover our land and the sovereignty to fish and hunt as we have always done—without fear of being beaten—is by building a casino.

Read the rest at Food First


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