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Background photo by Tom Lyons

Ramona Peters

Keeper of the Legends

Through archaeology, you hardly find anything left from my ancestors. But you’ll find ceramics.

It’s estimated that the Wampanoags have been here for about 12,000 years. I can only trace my lineage back to the 1590s. I grew up with my great grandmother still alive, and she was a tribal historian. I learned a lot from her about what happened before me and before her. By the time I was 16, I felt like I was 230 years old (laughs).

Cooperating and collaborating is the way that we survived on our homeland. Out of the 69 tribes that were active in the Wampanoag Nation in 1620, only three remain on their original village sites: the Mashpee, the Gay Head, and the Herring Pond Wampanoags.

Ramona Peters

My mother’s family is Bear Clan . . . The Wampanoag people are actually a matrilineal people—our lineage comes through our mothers, not our fathers. Different clans have different attributes to describe their expertise that just naturally develops. Bears are known for spiritual pursuit and introspection, so they make thoughtful leaders. Sometimes they practice medicine. There are a few scholars, but that’s more from my father’s clan, the Turtle Clan.

There has been a lot of leadership in my family for generations, both traditional and conventional, whether they have been medicine men, midwives, selectmen, superintendents of schools. My mother was the town accountant, my grandfather was the town assessor—we always walked in two worlds.

I live in a house that my parents built in 1952. There was rarely a car that went by on Great Neck Road (laughs) . . . The town was mostly tribal members, but the few non-tribal members were close friends too. We all went to school together, we all knew each other’s families . . . I grew up with five brothers and one sister in my immediate family. We spent a lot of time in the woods, along the river—the Mashpee River is behind the house a few hundred yards back. We’d play in the miles of land between here and the ocean. We were pretty much aware of any kind of animal or bird that lived here. There was a lot of stigma about going over the bridge—we had social norms that were really designed to keep the tribe close and at home.

As a child, my great grandmother took me to different households around the Cape, like to an Irish family that only spoke Gaelic, who had a sense of their homeland and really loved it. She took me to a Swedish family who spoke the language. I remember these things, the foods they ate. “It’s ignorant to say white people, first of all,” she said. “There’s Irish, there’s French, Dutch, there are all these people that came from a homeland. They have ancestors that are different. They’re not just white.” And I’m still interested in other cultures, other people’s ways of thinking and doing things.

•••

I learned how to do pottery when I was in college. My roommate’s grandmother was a Tewa from the San Ildefonso Pueblo tribe. We would go visit her and would collect things for her, the wood and the clay . . . I knew the components and the technique, just from observation. I started to do artifact reproduction for Plimoth Plantation around 1982, and they would give me a list of things they needed, 17th-century things. They gave me a list of two or three pots they wanted, so I made those pots . . . They gave me a powder to mix into the clay, because my pots are that good that if they broke, there would be no way to know if the pots were ancient or contemporary.

The clay itself—the wet, damp clay—does something special for me. The dry clay, the fired clay—when it’s all done, I’m almost detached. But the wet clay adds something to my being that I really find I need. It’s like a piece of nourishment, something that is important for my wellbeing.

The art form I chose to revive is functional Wampanoag pottery. All of the pieces are culturally informed by traditions. I wanted to bring back these shapes and forms so people could see what the Wampanoags used for cooking vessels, to make tea or whatever else.

We use them for ceremonies sometimes too . . . My ancestors didn’t use glazes. I could use glazes now, but I don’t. I use crushed red ochre or black slip or paint. Different techniques in the firing process can give more color to them, but for the most part I’ve stuck to tradition.

When I got out of college with a degree in education, I was teaching Indian education, so I’ve been involved in more than 40 years of teaching something. Teaching pottery is another thing. I teach workshops. Once a year, I teach at the Phillips Academy. In the wintertime, I often have native apprentices . . . I’ve spent weeks on one piece of pottery. So in a two-day class, all I can really do is teach the manner in which the pieces are constructed, what the responsibility of holding earth in your hands is, that just having the power to shape earth is an interesting foundation for a potter.

•••

Today, I’m also the Director of Tribal Historic Preservation. Because of my education background and this whole history of work that I’ve done previously, I’ve always been sort of a tribal historic preservationist. It’s been a natural thing. It just happens to be a job title now. We’re building archives, monitoring all kinds of information. It’s a huge gamut of things.

Mashpee is about the land, the water, the winds, and the tribe. Cape Cod itself is kind of a transient community—you have people coming and going all the time. We’re indigenous, so we’ve seen a lot of people come and go. I would hope that anyone that comes here could be more kind to the land and the water. The people that live in Mashpee that I don’t know—I can embrace them if they can embrace the land and water. It’s not that things have to stay the same, it’s that things have to stay healthy. If the fish aren’t healthy, then we can’t be healthy.

The clay—its essence is really important to me. Like a lot of Northeasterners, I tend to be kind of heady, and I need something to keep me grounded. And here it is, the earth itself.

About

Jeff is the Managing Editor for Cape Cod Life Publications.

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The Old Indian Church, Mashpee, Cape Cod, Mass

The Old Indian Church, Mashpee, Cape Cod, Mass