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Native perspective

Seeing a ‘missing link,’ twin brothers offer tours focusing on overlooked aspects of history-rich Plymouth

Tim Turner, of Native Plymouth Tours, fills his water bottle from a spring that empties into Town Brook. Turner on the hill overlooking Plymouth Rock monument; during a tour, he talked about Massasoit with Carol Hunley and her daughter, Laura, of Florida. Tim Turner, of Native Plymouth Tours, fills his water bottle from a spring that empties into Town Brook. Turner on the hill overlooking Plymouth Rock monument; during a tour, he talked about Massasoit with Carol Hunley and her daughter, Laura, of Florida. (Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff)
By Paul E. Kandarian
Globe Correspondent / September 1, 2011

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PLYMOUTH - Tim Turner sat on a park bench near a group of camera-toting tourists in shorts and T-shirts milling about Plymouth Rock one late summer afternoon. His head was shaved, save for a curly Mohawk that trailed into a ponytail, and his muscular forearms were marked by symbolic circle tattoos.

Along with shorts, he wore a T-shirt that said “Native Plymouth Tours,’’ and nearby sat a sign touting the same. Turner, 37, and his twin brother, Tom, launched the tours in April 2010 to showcase what they say is largely left out of Pilgrim-intensive Plymouth tours, a perspective of the Native Americans who were here long before white men.

As tourists walked by, some would stop and ask him what the tour was about. He was happy to tell them, inviting them along on the tour. Some expressed interest and tagged along when the tour started, paying the $15 fee for the roughly 1-mile, 90-minute walk. There are discounts for children and seniors.

“We figured this was needed,’’ said Turner, a Cherokee who came to Plymouth as a young boy with his widowed mother and brother, and is now manager of the Wampanoag home site at Plimoth Plantation. “We saw the missing link. There’s so much on Pilgrims, but not natives, unless you go to the plantation. Here, we go to spots highlighting native life and give a native spin.’’

The tour received a publicity boost recently when Yankee Magazine gave it an Editor’s Choice Award in its annual travel guide.

The tour encompasses what most others in Plymouth do not, Turner said: the story of the native Wampanoags who thrived here. There are roughly a dozen stops, including the statue of Massasoit, a legendary Wampanoag leader, looming atop Cole’s Hill; the Nemasket Trail near Jenney Grist Mill, a former 15-mile-long native link to what is now Middleborough; and the home site of Hobbamock, an English-speaking Wampanoag who was an ambassador and translator in the Pilgrim days and also, Turner and others said, possibly a spy for his fellow natives.

(Curtiss Hoffman, an anthropology professor at Bridgewater State University and noted Native American historian, said it’s possible Hobbamock had a dual role: “Why would people be expected to have a single loyalty?’’ he said in a telephone interview.)

All of the stops on Turner’s tour highlight the history of the area with a slant on what it was truly like for the Wampanoag living here in the early 17th century, whose numbers Turner said exceeded 100,000 before the Pilgrims arrived. But a plague beset them in 1620, wiping out thousands of natives and forcing the rest to flee the area. Roughly 5,000 to 7,000 Wampanoag live in the area today, he said.

“The Pilgrims came here, saw the bones [of the natives who had perished], and said it was God’s providence that cleared the land for them,’’ Turner said. “That really stresses how bad it must have been: Native Americans are very respectful of their dead and would never have ordinarily just left bodies behind like that.’’

The tour runs Fridays and Saturdays at 5:30 p.m. On a hot summer Friday evening, four took the tour with Turner, including Laura Hunley, 15, of Florida, who is taking community college courses while in high school and one day wants to be a lawyer to help, she said, “gays, women, and Native Americans.’’

Turner loves young people on his tours, he said, because “they’re like a sponge - they want to learn, they want to hear.’’

The walk started at the waterfront, with Turner explaining the wildlife that flourished here and telling how the Pilgrims had come to Plymouth by mistake, first settling in what is now Provincetown but finding the open land too harsh. Across the harbor at Plymouth, they found lush land, bountiful wildlife, and a huge river, which over the years was reduced to the much smaller Town Brook that exists today.

Turner stopped at the Massasoit statue and pointed out irregularities in the attire, such as an upright feather and side knife that he said the legendary leader would not have worn. (Hoffman said the statue designer based it on a Chippewa model, not a Wampanoag.) Turner also pointed out lesser-known facts about Massasoit, whose actual native name was Osaamequin, meaning “great leader.”

“He was not the leader of all the Wampanoag; he was chief of one Wampanoag village about 30 miles away, one village of 69,’’ Turner said. “But he was a wise man and many sought his advice, so a lot think he was leader of them all.’’

A surprising fact to many, Turner said, is that “half of the chiefs of those villages were women.’’

He spoke about the sarcophagus on Cole’s Hill holding the remains of Pilgrims who died in their first winter and were buried in the hill. Though not confirmed by DNA or any other analysis, he said, the sarcophagus may also hold Wampanoag bones. The Pilgrims had buried their dead from their first winter in the hill, an area used by Wampanoag for their own burials prior to that, Turner said. In the late 19th century, a storm washed part of the hill away, he said, and when bones that were revealed were put into the sarcophagus, “chances are, native bones were mixed in there as well.”

Turner’s delivery was smooth and natural, and he stopped many times to explain the flora and fauna of the area that made it so appealing to natives and Pilgrims, much of which still exist today. He made a point of stressing that any time natives took an animal’s life, they used every bit for food, clothing, and shelter.

Along the tour, Turner pointed out things like the common jewelweed plant, which Wampanoag used for medicinal purposes (Hoffman said it was used to treat poison ivy and in fact is often found growing near the rash-producing plant); red clay at springs feeding the brook they used for dyeing clothing and body paint; and flowers and birds’ eggs they’d use for the same purpose. Cattail stems were woven into mats for sleeping and to make walls for summer shelters.

Some of the history on the tour is grisly. There is a plaque on Leyden Street, for example, outlining the demise of Metacomet (also known as King Philip), a son of Massasoit. Hoffman, the anthropology professor, said Metacomet’s head was impaled on a stake that stood for 20 years near the Pilgrims’ fort as a warning to other natives, and his wife and son were sold into slavery.

Turner said historical tours are usually less emphatic about “bad history.’’

“Bad history doesn’t get told,’’ he said. “They tell wonderful stories, nice history prevails over black eyes, but in recent years, books and teachers have been getting much better at telling the true stories.’’

He said his and his brother’s tours are presented as neutrally as possible, “letting people make their own decisions.’’

Hunley was mostly silent on the tour, taking it all in. Later, as the group sat at the base of Cole’s Hill reflecting on what they saw, she said that, in her school, they didn’t learn much about Native American history.

“We were taught that Thanksgiving was all peaceful and everyone was buddies,’’ she said.

Also on the tour was Regina Forte-Paris of the Bronx, N.Y., an African-American who has Blackfoot in her ancestry, who talked about how being a native “is almost like being invisible, even though we had our own culture,” and how difficult it is to prove native lineage because records are scarce.

“It’s hard, if not impossible, to find” Native American links if they had been lost, she said. “On birth certificates, if you can find them, it often just says ‘colored.’ ”

(In a phone interview, Ann Berry, executive director of the Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth, who says she has taken and enjoyed the Turners’ tour, said imprecise or nonexistent record-keeping was “very common” because, in the 17th and 18th centuries, Native Americans “weren’t considered part of the white community.’’)

Forte-Paris’s advice regarding long-held, traditional historical records, with which Turner emphatically agreed, is that there is much not in history books and “to always, always keep an open mind.”

Turner and his brother, though native Cherokee, have long been immersed in the Wampanoag culture. Their mother had heard of Plimoth Plantation, and they came to Plymouth when they were 2 1/2 years old. They were mainstays at the plantation in their youth, befriending a native who worked there, Nanepashemet, who has since died.

“We had no father, and he became a father figure to us,’’ Tim Turner said. “We went every day and on weekends, and when I got old enough, they finally hired me, starting out as a translator.’’

For more information about Native Plymouth Tours, visit www.nativeplymouthtours.com or call 774-454-7792.

Paul E. Kandarian can be reached at kandarian@globe.com.