Mashpee has elected its first Wampanoag selectboard member in over ten years. David Weeden, who also serves as the Mashpee Wampanoag’s historic preservation officer, was elected in October, and many people hope his election will mark a turning point in what’s been a sometimes difficult relationship between the town and the tribe.
Weeden was elected running on a platform in which he promised to protect waterways like the Mashpee River. As a member of the Wampanoag tribe, he said that rivers have played a large part in shaping the tribe's culture and traditions, and he has fond childhood memories of herring fishing in the area of the Mashpee River, before the town saw large-scale development.
"You could come over to the edge of the retaining walls and look down and see the river would be black with herring," Weeden said, standing at the river's bank one afternoon.
He said part of his hope in being elected to the board will be to look at legislation that can keep these waterways from getting more polluted, an issue that he feels is of interest not only to tribal members, but to any Mashpee resident today.
But Weeden’s election to the selectboard is more than just a campaign to save Mashpee’s rivers. His election makes him the first Wampanoag selectboard member since 2009. Before that, it had been decades since a tribe member served on the board. But things weren't always that way.
"Because of my role as the Historic Preservation Officer, I'm constantly reminded that in the town, earlier on, all the seats of the board were filled by tribal members," Weeden said.
Weeden added that there was a time when everyone in town government, from the police force to the politicians, were members of the tribe. But that was before Mashpee entered a period of development in the 1960s.
"Historically, the town was a Wampanoag town," said Paula Peters, a tribe member and historian. "Even though early in the last century there were non-natives who moved into the town, they were primarily here as visitors, living seasonally in Mashpee, and really weren't interested in the governance of the town."
She said a lot of this change was driven by the creation of developments like New Seabury.
"We started to see growth in Mashpee from that time, and developers started to move in, and they were concerned about how Mashpee was governed," Peters said. "We found that by the mid 1970s, only one of the selectmen remained a Wampanoag."
With increased development came a population that shifted from mostly Wampanoag members to mostly non-native people. Peters said selectboard members at the time were openly racist towards the tribe, and that tensions culminated in an act of police brutality at a 1976 powwow—an incident she chronicles in her book The Mashpee Nine.
"The selectmen back in the 1970s were combative with the tribe," she said. "We've had really combative town leaders and combative people in town government that we've had to fight for our rights with."
Since then, Peters said, relations between the tribe and the town have evolved. Wampanoag tribe member George "Chuckie" Greene served on the selectboard from 2000 to 2009. But overall, Peters said, she believes the tribe’s skepticism of town government might be difficult to overcome.
"They're becoming better adept at dealing with the government and using their power as citizens, but I think there's always going to be that mistrust," she said.
Andrew Gottlieb, chair of the current Mashpee selectboard agreed.
"Those of us who have been around town for a while, dating back to the 1970s, have pretty strong memories of tumultuous times in the communities," Gottlieb said. "We'd be kidding ourselves if we pretended that those things did not linger in some peoples' minds."
But there are signs of change. David Weeden’s nephew Brian Weeden is a younger tribe member who is also politically involved. Recently, he was able to get an article passed in town meeting to make Mashpee the first town on the Cape to recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
He’s 27, and while he acknowledged the difficult history between tribal members and the town government, he felt that having tribal representation was important.
"I think that having our own people there to push the discussion and the agenda is definitely going ot help us, and I think it's important that the indigenous people of this place are represented," Weeden said.
He's considering a run for selectboard member in the future too, and hopes things are changing in the tribe’s relationship with the town.
"I think with David's election, the town understands, it's been a long time coming," he said.