Monday, August 17, 2015
August 17, 2015: Cape Cod Stories: The Mashpee Revolt
[For many up here in New England, summer means a trip or twelve to the Cape—Cape Cod, that is (with no disrespect to the beautiful Cape Ann). So this week, I’ll AmericanStudy five Cape Cod stories—share your own summer favorite places and their stories for a crowd-sourced weekend getaway, please!]
On what’s complex and challenging about a historical rebellion, and what’s not.
In this long-ago post on the early 19th century concept of “nullification” (a concept that has returned to our national conversations in recent monts), I noted that what seems to differentiate John Calhoun’s proto-Confederate attempts to resist the federal government from those of Cape Cod’s Mashpee Wampanoag tribe and community is, to put it simply, our sympathies. That is, of course to any thoughtful and knowledgable AmericanStudier a community like the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe had far more legitimate grievances than did Calhoun’s South Carolina (which along with its fellow Southern states had, I would argue, been favored at every stage of the American founding, from the Declaration to the Constitution and beyond). But whether legimitate historical grievances are an argument for an entire community refusing to follow state and federal law, as did the Mashpee during their Revolt of 1833-34—well, that’s a different and more challenging question to be sure.
But there’s another history and concept that’s also relevant to the Mashpee Revolt, and that indeed does differentiate their situation from South Carolina’s: the developing idea of tribal sovereignty. Tribes like the Mashpee Wampanoag don’t just perceive themselves as sovereign nations, separate from the United States in key ways; they have long been treated as such by the U.S., including if not especially in its treaties and laws. That the U.S. has forgotten, broken, and otherwise failed to live up to those treaties and laws so consistently in no way undermines the concept of tribal sovereignty; if anything, it makes it that much more important that the tribes themselves emphasize and fight for their sovereign rights, as the Mashpee Wampanoag did (successfully) in the 1830s. Moreover, the specifics of such legal fights make a great deal of difference as well: the Mashpee Wampanoag were struggling for the right not to practice and extend an abhorrent social system like that of slavery (which may not have been the overt goal of Calhoun’s 1830s nullifications, but was at the least foreshadowed by that fight), but rather for their fundamental ability to control and make a living on their own tribal land.
Remembering Cape Cod’s Mashpee Revolt helps us engage with and better understand those complex legal questions and histories, not only for Native Americans but for the nation as a whole in the antebellum era. Yet it also does more than that. For one thing, it gives us a starting point for better remembering the tragically short but profoundly influential life and work of William Apess, the itinerant minister and orator who joined the Mashpee in their fight. And for another, related thing, it reminds us of the presence and power of Native American voices in this early 19th century moment. Too often, our narratives of such histories focus solely or centrally on white allies and advocates, in part because for many decades theirs were the only voices and texts we had recovered. But while those voices are without question part of the story, it’s vital that we see them for what they were—supporting players in an unfolding drama that had at its heart, then as always, Native American orators and activists, leaders and communities. Cape Cod’s Mashpee Revolt offers a particularly clear and effective starting point for remembering their struggles and successes.
Next Cape story tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Summer favorite places you’d highlight?