History Retold by Native Women

Amy Mevorach
Issue Date: 
July, 2019
Article Body: 

As Niki Lefebvre introduced an event titled “Women of Natick and Ponkapoag: The Untold History of Praying Towns,” sponsored by the Natick Historical Society and held at the Morse Institute Library on May 30, she noted that John Eliot, the Puritan missionary who established Natick in 1651 as the first of many “praying towns” in New England, never lived in Natick. “Today it is nearly impossible to live in – or pass through – Natick without coming into contact with his name and his influence.”
Lefebvre, who began as Director of the Natick Historical Society in May 2018, embraces the challenge of decolonizing museum spaces. An ambiguous process, part of decolonizing, for Lefebvre, means creating spaces for suppressed histories and perspectives to be shared that may contradict the dominant mythology. Looking beyond the legacy of John Eliot and challenging the implications of his influence, Kristen Wyman of the Natick Nipmuc tribe of Massachusetts and Elizabeth Solomon of the Massachusett Tribe at Ponkapoag shared part of the history and presence of Native women.
Wyman, who is the granddaughter of the late Nipmuc Sachem Mary Anne Hendricks, described traditional roles. “Women drive the subsistence economy. They have leadership, authority, and decision making power.” The white settlers, she said, “had an automatic precept of inferiority and thought we needed saving.”
Indigenous communities include multiple genders and roles. Their understanding of gender is “tied to the understanding of the earth as feminine.” Women share with the earth “the energy of creation, life, caring and tending. Women have a gift to be level-headed in diplomacy and leadership. In a war-centered, male-centered history, where are the women? Something was lost along the way.”
After surviving the brutality of the Deer Island captivity, mass deaths from disease, indoctrination, guilt and scrutiny, she said, Nipmuc people returned to Natick and tried to hold land in cooperation. Wyman’s work as an advocate supports women holding land over generations.
Ponkapoag was established as the second praying town in 1657. Solomon described the disparity between European and Native ways, particularly the Europeans’ habit of “living on” rather than “living with” the land, manipulating of native resources, and thinking of ownership and being settled in one place. “The Native way is a cycle going around and around. We are an inseparable part of the environment. We move seasonally, as the environment dictates.”
The seasonal movement was restricted as more colonial settlers moved to the coast, and the pattern of spending summers on the coast and winters inland was halted by 1640 when the coast was blocked by settlements. Then the tribes began moving into praying towns.
In praying towns, Native people were assigned the gender roles of European society. Men interacted with the world, and women inhabited the separate sphere of the household instead of farming the way they were accustomed. Recorders of history, says Solomon, “didn’t see the women as important or didn’t see them at all,” missing an opportunity to “actually get together and build something beneficial for both cultures.”
The act of decolonizing Native history is an unwieldy endeavor. Solomon has trouble with the word. “Decolonization means all of you go and we stay... we’re not realistically thinking that will happen.” For Wyman, “decolonization means giving up power.” Still lacking political rights and protection, the Nipmuc are not federally recognized though the history is well documented. “People love to research us,” says Wyman, “and we’re still struggling to be seen.
She says the work of decolonizing is difficult for Native people because of the traumas inflicted by the history, but that “it means being brave, centering the marginalized and reclaiming the traditional ways.”