By LEIGH VINCOLA/ecoRI News contributor
BRISTOL, R.I. — It wouldn’t be surprising if you’ve never heard of the Pokanoket tribe. Unfortunate, yes, but not surprising. The story of the Pokanokets, who claimed a large territory reaching from Cape Cod and the Islands to southern Vermont, was swallowed over time and eventually lumped together with the Wampanoag Nation.
The Pokanokets, however, are a distinct people whose history was unfairly silenced after the King Phillip War.
In mid-1600s, the Pokanokets were led by King Phillip, also known as Metacomet who succeeded his father as the Massasoit (great leader) of the tribe. The heart of their territory was, and still is, much of the East Bay, including their spiritual highland on Mount Hope. King Phillip sought to live in harmony with the English settlers, as his father had, but as he watched his land and his tribesmen being taken away and killed, he began to change his tune. King Phillip declared that he wouldn’t die without claim to his own land, and thus the war began.
Although the war started off strong for the native people, it ultimately ended in defeat for the Pokanokets, when King Phillip was killed and beheaded near Mount Hope. After that, any male claiming to be of the Pokanoket tribe was killed by the English — a Colonial-era law that is said to have remained intact until 2006.
In fear of losing their lives, the Pokanokets learned to be close-mouthed about their identity. The outcome? A story known to few.
Today, the tribe is doing everything it can to make sure its heritage is understood and its rich, mostly peaceful history not forgotten. Part of that effort is returning to Mount Hope, the tribe’s spiritual high ground, and what is now Mount Hope Farm, and owned by the Mount Hope Trust.
Mount Hope Farm is a national historic property with a mission to preserve the land and its historical significance. It does this by maintaining the buildings, farmland, trails and coastal areas, and by managing several programs and enterprises that keep the property accessible to the public.
For many years, Brown University was the caretaker of a piece of land adjacent to Mount Hope Farm that held particular significance for the Pokanokets. In 2014, the Providence university turned the stewardship of that parcel over to Jennifer Bristol, the farm’s executive director. Those additional acres include King Phillips Seat, a rocky outcrop at the base of Mount Hope, and a marker where he was killed during the war.
This property was a new treasure for Mount Hope Farm, and the foundation upon which its Native American education programs were built.
Now in its second year, the farm runs Camp Wetu, a summer day camp for children. The camp features a strong Native American theme. The children are led by the current Pokanoket chief, Bill Guy, who teaches tribal arts, crafts, dancing and music. The young campers learn to make tools from what is available in nature, as the Pokanockets did, and tribal rituals are held in a circular gathering spot under pine trees.
“So much of our past has been hidden and this is a chance to make it known,” Guy said about his experience working the campers. “The kids love the stories, and you can tell that the meaning is sinking in.”
Wetu Camp director Frank Campo is enthusiastic about the Pokanokets’ contribution to the program and the impact Native Americans have on the children.
“The kids are in awe when they realize that this is real, that all this stuff actually happened,” Campo said. “It brings their imagination to life and their minds are open.”
Previous to Mount Hope Farm managing the property, the land could be difficult to gain access to because of permitting issues. Now, with fewer parties involved, there is less red tape, making it easier for the tribe to visit its spiritual home.
“We act as if the land still belongs to the Pokanokets,” Bristol said.
Mount Hope Farm schedules visits to the important tribal sites, guiding visitors down and telling the stories of King Phillip, Massasoit, the war and the food for the first Thanksgiving that was grown here.
“People really want to hear this history,” Bristol said. “This place is special, and being there is a profound experience — you can just feel it.”
In addition to Camp Wetu, the tribe holds its own Strawberry Harvest Festival at the farm in June, and it participates in the farm’s annual Farmfest, set for Oct. 29 this year. The goal is to integrate the tribe more into operations at Mount Hope Farm.
What is most important to both Mount Hope Farm and the tribe is that the Pokanocket story is living on and that the community understands Native Americans play an important role in local history.
For the Pokanokets, though, hundreds of years of silencing don’t erase quickly. There is, of course, a sadness that comes with this, but Chief Guy delights in the opportunity to have his people’s story fall on eager, youthful ears.