Who were the Dartmouth Indians? The real Dartmouth Indians?

They were not football players or high school field hockey stars.

The Dartmouth Indians were a branch of the great Wampanoags, the self-described “people of the first light” whose members once spread throughout Southeastern Massachusetts.

The Wampanoags in 1621 saved the Pilgrims from starvation after their first horrendous winter in the New World, teaching them to fish and plant crops. But just 50 years later, the members of this great nomadic nation had been told they could not continue their ancient ways and would have to submit to English law forever.

For the last few years, the town of Dartmouth has been involved in what may come to be known as the Second Great Dartmouth Indian War. And while it is completely less deadly and violent than the first, it has nevertheless left this community deeply divided and battered to a point that it may not heal easily.

Little Green is not alone in this bitter war of words. It’s a clash of cultures that has played out endlessly for American high schools, colleges and even professional sports teams for more than a decade as the white majority, and sometimes even its allies in the Black and indigenous peoples of this country, have been dragged kicking and screaming into a world where diversity, not physical dominance, has become the highest value.

On one side in Dartmouth is a group that hopes it can put an end to the debate by holding a town election on April 5. Their message is simple: This is our heritage, it’s a good one, and you’re not taking it away from us. 

The other Dartmouth group, meanwhile, points to nation-wide discussions about the way Native Americans and African Americans have historically been depicted disparagingly — their cultures appropriated since 1620 and 1619 respectively. These folks say there is nothing election-wise or legal-wise that anyone could do within the borders of Round Hill Beach and the Freetown State Forest that will put the debate to rest.

Perhaps in this atmosphere, it’s useful to look a little closer at the actual history of the indigenous people of Dartmouth and Southeastern Massachusetts.

“Awashonks,” 1830. Wooden figurehead, 39 x 19 x 20 inches. New Bedford Whaling Museum Purchase, 1970.5. Credit: Image provided by New Bedford Whaling Museum

At the end of King Philip’s War in 1676, the numbers of Native Americans in New England rapidly collapsed as the disparate tribes grew more and more anglicized. In fact, through the natives’ vulnerability to European diseases and firearms, there were already twice as many whites as Indians in 1675 when the war broke out.

Unlike with tribes in more westerly parts of the nation, many of the records of King Philip’s people were annihilated along with him.

The chief or sachem named “King Philip,” of course, had a name in his own language. It was Metacom, or Metacomet. His father, the great Massasoit who had first greeted the Pilgrims, later gave Metacom and his brother Wamsutta the names Philip and Alexander in order to honor these strange people he thought would aid him in his wars against the Narragansett and other tribes.

The English colonists meant business when they came to the Wampanoags’ land. They set to “purchasing” — for a few pots and pans, firearms and liquor — the Wampanoags’ sacred fishing and hunting grounds. 

These European domesticated people, with a written language and systems of laws, bought the land from a nomadic culture with neither. The Wampanoags could not comprehend the English ideas about personal ownership as in their culture they viewed the land and the air, the sky and the water, as available to everyone. Or at least available to everyone in the tribe.

The difficulties of integrating the colonists and these indigenous people’s worlds has come down to us through the ages. Here’s what the descendants of the Pilgrims and the Puritans said about the colonists’ views of the Native Americans at a Whaling Museum talk in 1903:

“The strong, self-contained men (English) would look with disdain and contempt on the faults and failings of his weaker brethren (Wampanoags). Why should he do for those who could not, or would not, do for themselves?”

It sounds like the talk of today’s dominant culture, in many ways, does it not?

“Why should he consider the opinion and judgment of those who had not the ability to form either opinion or judgment? Why should he consider as his equals those who were plainly his inferiors?” asked Capt. Thomas R. Rodman at the Winter Meeting of the Dartmouth Historical Society in that year at the turn of the 20th century.

The King Philip’s War, whose per capita death rate is considered the highest in American history, was led, on the colonists’ side, by a man named Col. Benjamin Church of Little Compton. Unlike most of his English contemporaries, Church had a personal affinity for the Wampanoags and he learned their ways of traveling through the region’s great swamps, and also their ways of fighting.

Church is said to have been appalled when after the war, the Plymouth Colony promptly sold into slavery in the West Indies the 160 or so surviving Indians in Dartmouth, including some he described as his “friends.”

Over in Rhode Island, the Baptist leader Roger Williams had thought such a wholesale war on the Indians was unnecessary, preferring to live among them. But after Awashonks, the female sachem of the nearby Sakonnet tribe near Little Compton, told Church that Philip was indeed planning war, he led the colonists against him.

According to the introduction to Church’s diary of the war, just before the fighting broke out, Metacom in discussions with the Quaker deputy governor of Rhode Island, cited his reasons for going to battle.

He outlined how his father, as a great man when the Pilgrims came, saved them when they were like children. He cited how the Indians had let the English have a hundred times more land than Philip now had for his own people. And how his brother Wamsutta had been dragged before Boston authorities on suspicion of war-planning and how the Indians believed he had then been poisoned. Another of Philip’s grievances was that if 20 good Indians testified against one bad Englishman, the English would decide on behalf of their own man.

How much does that sound like the distrust between police and the court system vs. Black and brown people today? 

So the King Philip’s War came and Dartmouth homesteads were burned and inhabitants massacred. Those remaining hid out at Russell’s Garrison, and many of the Indians themselves stayed out on the island at Apponagansett.

Fast forward 350 years and you are back in this years-long debate over the use of the name “Indians” for the sports teams.

And once again, the branches of the Wampanoags are divided over whether or not to align with a dominant white community in an argument that has grown into some kind of a crisis for a town that is almost 100% white.

All around, it’s a tragedy. Especially for someone like Wampanoag and town native Clyde Andrews who drew what was indisputably a respectful image 40 or 50 years ago, but whose 1960s image, noble as it may have been then, has now lost the battle of time to the fact that cultures don’t stand still. What was acceptable, and even progressive at one time, in the rear-view mirror no longer fits. The word “Indian” has been abused and misused for too many centuries, and by too many people, for the town of Dartmouth, driven by right-wing political agendas, to somehow carve out a separate space for itself.

Maybe the best thing that could happen is that the school take Clyde’s image and make it a logo for academic or environmental excellence instead of for overwhelming strength on the football field. Maybe it could just be a revered school symbol of the Wampanoags’ role in the town’s primordial history.

It just can’t be the moniker for sports teams that reference the stereotypic white concept of “wild Indians.” It’s time to move beyond that.

I have a friend who went to Dartmouth High School in the 1950s. He tells me the teams were always known as “Little Green” in a reference to Dartmouth College being “Big Green.” But he remembers a teacher getting up at a school assembly one day to announce that from now on the school won’t have that weak name anymore, it will be “the Indians!”

Who knows if my friend remembers the story correctly. There is no doubt that before Clyde Andrews offered his noble depiction of the Indian, some of the previous versions of it had been disparaging.

Maybe splitting the difference on the name and the logo is the best solution to the Second Great Indian War.

Email Jack Spillane at jspillane@newbedfordlight.org.

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