In the interview series Meet Native America, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian invites tribal leaders, cultural figures, and other interesting and accomplished Native individuals to introduce themselves and say a little about their lives and work. Together, their responses illustrate the diversity of the indigenous communities of the Western Hemisphere, as well as their shared concerns, and offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of Native people today. —Dennis Zotigh
Chairman Cedric Cromwell, Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, speaking in front of the U.S. Capitol during the Reservation Economic Summit. June 16, 2015; Washington, D.C.
Please introduce yourself with your name and title.
Cedric Cromwell, chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe.
Can you share with us your Native name and its English translation?
It's Qaqeemasq. It means Running Bear.
Where is your tribe located?
We're in Mashpee, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod.
Where was your tribe originally from?
We have always been here, for over twelve thousand years. We were here when the Pilgrims touched the shores in Plymouth, Massachusetts, and we are still here and have a significant presence today.
What is a significant point in history from your tribe that you would like to share?
A significant time for our tribe was in 2007 when we received federal recognition after 35 years of working and waiting for the process to be completed. Many people from the area and beyond celebrated with us, including the late Ted Kennedy, U.S. senator from Massachusetts and brother of President John F. Kennedy.
How is your tribal government set up?
Our tribal government is council-run. The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Council is made up of 13 members. The council is led by four officers—chairman, vice chair, secretary, and treasurer. Of the nine other sitting members, two are our chief and medicine man. All council members are voted in by our membership at tribal elections.
Is there a functional, traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system?
We have a Chief’s Circle that provides counsel to tribal members regarding family and community concerns for healing and medicine. We also have peacemakers who work to resolve disputes among tribal members to avoid the legal process.
How often are elected leaders chosen?
We have elections every four years. The terms are staggered to avoid ever having an entirely new council.
How often does your council meet?
Tribal Council meets weekly, mostly during the evening though there are some all-day meetings. Our tribe holds a meeting of the general membership every second Sunday of the month.
Chairman Cromwell and his mother, Constance Lone Eagless Cromwell, at the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Ball. March 22, 2015; North Falmouth, Massachusetts.
How did your life experience prepare you to lead your tribe?
At an early age, my mother would bring my brother and me to all the tribal meetings. She was the tribal secretary for 35 years and at that time was responsible for keeping all the historical tribal records. There were even times when I would be sitting on her lap in the meetings. So I was exposed to tribal government at a very early age. I guess you could say being a member of the tribal government was in my blood.
What responsibilities do you have as a tribal leader?
I have the same responsibilities as the president of the United States. We are considered to be a nation, and as leader I am expected to oversee the workings of this nation. I meet with community leaders on behalf of the tribe. I meet with Congress and many U.S. government agencies. I meet with Commonwealth of Massachusetts representatives and senators. I have been involved in the public school system to ensure our Native children are being well served. Our council has also been instrumental in securing our tribal rights for hunting, fishing, and gathering and seeing that these rights have been upheld in our community and the surrounding towns.
Who inspired you as a mentor?
My mother was my driving force to be “all that I can be” and more. She and my dad taught my brother and me that there are no obstacles in life that we can’t forge. She is gone now to that great Grand Lodge in the sky, but I can still hear her voice in my ear encouraging me to be strong and push on in spite of everything.
Are you a descendant of a historical leader? If so, who?
I am descendant of the great Wampanoag sachems Massasoit Ousamequin and Massasoit Popnomett.
Approximately how many members are in the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe?
What are the criteria to become a member of your tribe?
Direct family lineage from specific families identified in the Earle Report—the Report to the Governor and Council, concerning the Indians of the Commonwealth, under the Act of April 16, 1859. We have a very strong Genealogy Department that has very strict and appropriate guidelines.
Is your language still spoken on your homelands? If so, what percentage of your people would you estimate are fluent speakers?
Our language was lost for many years. In the past 10 years, behind the vision of our Vice Chairwoman Jessie Little Doe Baird, we have had the privilege of seeing our language reclaimed. It is being taught to our children, our young people, and our elders. We have several fluent speakers of the Wômpanâak language and in the not too distant future will have many more who will be able to speak our language fluently.
What economic enterprises does your tribe own?
We have a shellfish farm and a museum. Currently we provide historic cultural monitors for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. We are in the process of obtaining land in trust and developing a $500-million destination resort in the city of Taunton, Massachusetts.
What annual events does your tribe sponsor?
We have our powwow—next July will be the 95th annual Mashpee Wampanoag Powwow—Quahog Day, Ancestors Day, and our annual Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Thanks Giving Day—which is observed for different reasons than America traditionally celebrates on Thanksgiving.
What attractions are available for visitors on your land?
Powwow attracts a few thousand people each year to this area. We have a museum of our history that visitors from all over the world come to visit and a new, award-winning $15-million Community and Government Center.
Opening the new Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Community and Government Center. March 29, 2014; Mashpee, Massachusetts.
How does your tribe deal with the United States and Canada as a sovereign nation?
Being a federally recognized tribe means we have a nation-to-nation relationship with the U.S. government. I'm glad you asked about Canada, as well. The indigenous peoples of this part of the United States and Canada share traditions and many other aspects of culture together. My father is from Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada; he is Micmac and Mohawk Indian.
What message would you like to share with the youth of your tribe?
We are intelligent Native American people and a historical tribal nation with a strong culture that is tied directly to our homelands in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Mashpee was the first Indian-governed town recognized as such in the United States, incorporated by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in the year 1870.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
It is very important that we as Native Americans remember our past so that our future is bright with all that we can be to lift our tribal nations. I have a vision that Indian Country’s culture and people will thrive through diverse economies that will extend our prominence and forward-thinking for next seven generations and beyond, for us and all of mankind.
Photographs courtesy of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe.
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From left to right: Representative Ponka-We Victors (Tohono O’odham/Southern Ponca) taking the oath of office in the Kansas House of Representatives; photo courtesy of Kansas Rep. Scott Schwab. Bird Runningwater (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache) at the Sundance Film Festival; photo courtesy of WireImage. Sergeant Debra Mooney (Choctaw) at the powwow in Al Taqaddum Air Force Base, Iraq, 2004; photo courtesy of Sgt. Debra Mooney. Councilman Jonathan Perry (Wampanoag) in traditional clothing; photo courtesy of Jonathan Perry. Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne/Hodulgee Muscogee) at Blackhorse et al. v. Pro Football, Inc., press conference, U.S. Patent and Trade Office, February 7, 2013; photo courtesy of Mary Phillips. All photos used with permission.