First Thanksgiving: How a Native woman is setting the record straight
Why We Wrote This
Can we really ever know our history if we only listen to the victors? When it comes to the Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving, Linda Coombs, a Wampanoag woman and educator, sets the record straight.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Linda Coombs, a member of the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe, has been working for decades to tell the story of the nation’s founding through the perspective of Native Americans. This year is the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower voyage.
November 20, 2020
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It’s a rite of fall for many American schoolchildren. As the greens of summer give way to autumn oranges and reds, history lessons inevitably turn to the early days of Massachusetts Bay Colony and what has come to be called the first Thanksgiving.
“There’s so much that’s happened that isn’t in the history books. And [the] history that is there is distorted. It’s skewed,” says Linda Coombs, a museum educator and historical Native interpreter.
Most Americans know about the diplomatic alliance of Massasoit, a leader of the Wampanoags, offering food to the starving Pilgrims in exchange for protection against the powerful Narragansett Tribe. Few have learned about King Philip’s War – a conflict starting in 1675 that resulted in the collapse of an organized Native resistance.
Ms. Coombs’ lifework has been to bring the Native perspective back into the retelling of the founding of America – an undertaking that this year coincides with the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower voyage.
“Linda can look at those [historical] accounts and … add back in the things that have been omitted, the things that have been left out about Native people,” says Michele Pecoraro, executive director of the nonprofit Plymouth 400. “That is a huge job.”
In her 40 years as a museum educator and historical Native interpreter, there is one thing that bugs Linda Coombs the most: disbelief by white people that she is real.
“[Visitors] would just walk right up to you and go, ‘You’re not an Indian.’ The way we looked might not fit what they had in their mind of what an Indian should look like. We would constantly run into children who just couldn’t fathom that we were not 350 years old,” she says.
Ms. Coombs is a member of the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe in Massachusetts. The Wampanoag Nation, once made up of 69 villages, is most famous for its early alliance with the English settlers who arrived on the Mayflower in 1620. But on the 400th anniversary of that event Ms. Coombs wants to set the record straight – there is more to the story. It has been her lifework to bring the Native perspective back into the retelling of the founding of America and broaden recognition of the roughly 5,000 Wampanoag citizens who still live in Massachusetts. But it hasn’t been easy.
“Watching her continue to come up against that kind of ignorance over and over and over again, she was just never deterred by it,” says Paula Peters, who sits on the Wampanoag Advisory Committee with Ms. Coombs and worked alongside her at Plimoth Plantation, a living history museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts. “I have grown up in our cultural community watching and learning from her. … I greatly admire her for her knowledge, and the courage that she has to really stand by her interpretations of history from the Native viewpoint.”
The 400th anniversary of the Mayflower voyage and the founding of Plymouth Colony comes during strange times: a pandemic and racial strife not seen since the 1960s. But they are also providing Ms. Coombs with a unique opportunity to fill in the true details about the interactions between the Wampanoag and English peoples in the 1600s. She serves on the board of Plymouth 400, a nonprofit dedicated to marking the anniversary with cultural events – many of which were canceled because of the pandemic.
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Through Plymouth 400, Ms. Coombs has co-written “The Massachusetts Chronicles,” an inclusive state history textbook, with more than 60,000 copies distributed to 1,854 schools across the state. She also co-created the first Indigenous History Conference at Bridgewater State University, which featured 62 speakers over nine sessions and drew more than 1,600 remote participants during its first weekend in October.
“It’s difficult to find people like her who have done the research, who have credibility to tell their story,” says Michele Pecoraro, executive director of Plymouth 400. “Linda can look at those [historical] accounts and … add back in the things that have been omitted, the things that have been left out about Native people. And that is a huge job.”
For instance, most history lessons of the early days in Massachusetts Bay Colony end with the diplomatic alliance of Massasoit, a sachem, or leader, of the Wampanoags, offering food to the starving Pilgrims in exchange for protection against the powerful Narragansett Tribe in 1621. But few people have heard of King Philip’s War or understand its significance.
What happened next
Massasoit’s son, Metacom, who had taken the English name Philip, felt threatened by the expansion of English settlers and sought to unite Indigenous peoples of southern New England against them in 1675. A violent conflict lasting 18 months resulted in thousands dead on both sides and the ultimate collapse of an organized Native resistance. Metacom’s severed head sat on a pike for 25 years in Plymouth as a warning.
“There’s so much that’s happened that isn’t in the history books. And [the] history that is there is distorted. It’s skewed,” says Ms. Coombs.
But even she hasn’t always paid close attention to her own ancestry and how it has been portrayed.
In 1970, on the 350th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ arrival in Plymouth, local organizers had invited Frank James, a Wampanoag leader whose Native name was Wamsutta, to speak on Thanksgiving Day about that early alliance between Massasoit and the English settlers. The speech that Mr. James submitted, however, spoke of the incredible losses his ancestors suffered. When the anniversary organizers turned down his “inflammatory” perspective, he established a National Day of Mourning.
Ms. Coombs was in the audience for the alternative event held that day. The presence of hundreds of other Indigenous people from around the United States made an impression on her. “I hadn’t had any exposure to other Native people,” recalls Ms. Coombs, whose father was an Aquinnah Wampanoag and whose mother was white. “My awareness of what it meant to be a Native person was sparked.”
Four years later, an opportunity presented itself: an internship at the Boston Children’s Museum designed for Native Americans, which later led to a full-time position. It was there that she discovered she had a knack for analyzing the written word.
“We’d be reading different sources [to develop exhibits] … and we’d hit something that just struck us as utterly ridiculous … and we’d sit there and just laugh uncontrollably,” says Ms. Coombs. She recalls one text from the 1940s that described Weetamoo, a respected Wampanoag sachem who died during King Philip’s War. “[The authors] referred to her as a ‘dusky squaw.’ The word squaw is an insult. That’s right up there with the N-word.”
After her time on staff at the Children’s Museum, Ms. Coombs helped to develop the Wampanoag Indigenous program at Plimoth Plantation over three decades, becoming the first Wampanoag person in the museum’s administration. Today, she continues to consult and help create exhibits and educational kits for historical societies and museums in Massachusetts.
But it is the Indigenous History Conference at Bridgewater State University, which Ms. Coombs co-organized with Professor Joyce Rain Anderson, that will likely have the biggest and most lasting impact, says university President Fred Clark. Already, he says, C-SPAN and other networks are interested in footage from the conference.
“We’re stepping on the same grounds that Native peoples have stepped on for thousands of years and we don’t know anything about that history,” says Mr. Clark. “[Ms. Coombs] is an educator, and even though we’re the state’s largest producer of teachers, she taught us here at Bridgewater quite a bit about the need to tell the full story of the Indigenous peoples in Massachusetts.”
Ms. Coombs says she is seeing broader receptivity to the Native lessons she is trying to deliver.
“Especially since I’ve gotten older, I’ve worked less and less with children and I’ve worked more and more with teachers. … And the teachers … have been asking for actual history and the real culture [of Wampanoags]. They want to give kids the right information,” she says. “If something happened in history, it deserves to be told and it deserves to be told in the right way and in the rightful context.”