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Hundreds celebrate coin honoring Wampanoag treaty

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By Akilah Johnson
Globe Staff / March 26, 2011

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PLYMOUTH — Hundreds of people packed the Plimoth Plantation visitor center yesterday to celebrate a new coin depicting a treaty between the Wampanoag tribe and English settlers at Plymouth Bay that helped shape modern America.

But this party was more than a celebration of images pressed into metal. For many, it was long-overdue recognition of the Wampanoag’s contributions to olonial history.

The US Mint yesterday unveiled a $1 coin that on its tails side depicts the hands of Governor John Carver and Ousamequin Massasoit of the Wampanoag Nation as they share a ceremonial peace pipe after completing the historic 1621 treaty.

“This is the right direction,’’ Winnie Johnson-Graham, a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Council, said as her young daughter hugged her leg. “It’s an acknowledgement of the Wampanoag people. People need to know who we are. We’re here. We’ve always been here.’’

Historians consider the alliance one of the factors that ensured the survival of the Plymouth colony. Massasoit, which means great leader, promised to defend the Pilgrims against hostile attacks in return for their assistance should there be an attack against the Wampanoag, more than two-thirds of whom had died of diseases believed to have been brought to the continent by earlier European visitors.

The new coin is the latest in a series begun in 2009 under the Native American $1 Coin Act . The legislation mandates that the mint produce distinct $1 coins commemorating contributions made by Indian tribes and individuals to American history.

The heads side of the 2011 coin features an image of Sacagawea, a Shoshone Native American woman best-known for helping the Lewis and Clark expedition navigate and trade with other Native American tribes. The reverse side includes the inscription Wampanoag Treaty 1621.’’

“We’ve endured through hundreds of years of oppression and miscommunication, and here we stand today with the opportunity for a new beginning,’’ Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, chairwoman of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), told the crowd of about 500 that included tribal elders and state officials.

The goal of the coin program is to put a piece of America’s history in people’s hands, said B.B. Craig, associate director of sales and marketing at the US Mint. And while you can’t put the complete history of a nation of people on the back of a coin, the design is a way to start a dialogue, he said.

“The mission for all the coins is to connect America,’’ Craig said.

Yesterday’s standing-room-only ceremony started with a prayer in the Wampanoag language and an “honor song’’an act of reverence to the Creator, to the earth and to the tribe’s ancestorsperformed by the Eastern Sons Drummers and Singers.

Children dressed in traditional deerskin clothing and barrettes made from brightlycolored beads darted through the crowd. All of the children attending received one free coin.

The festive nature of yesterday’s coin unveiling had political undertones, as Wampanoag leaders took the opportunity to advocate for the social and economic needs of the tribe. The Wampanoag have lived in New England for more than 12,000 years and were the first tribe to interact with the colonists. The 1621 treaty’s provisions stayed intact for nearly 50 years.

“It is gratifying that an image depicting our ancestors’ supreme diplomacy is being celebrated and commemorated in this fashion,’’ Mashpee Wampanoag tribal chairman Cedric Cromwell told the crowd. “Unfortunately, respect for the indigenous people of this land quickly disintegrated. The Wampanoag were systematically killed, sold into slavery, forced into ‘praying towns,’ split from our families, and driven from our homes.’’

The results, Cromwell said, have lingered and manifest themselves through housing and economic hardships and health disparities.

Akilah Johnson can be reached at ajohnson@globe.com.