When you talk with the members of the Pocasset Tribe, they always come back to the land.

The land of their forefathers, the land where their people once planted corn and gathered shellfish, the land where their tribe members lived for 10,000 years before the Pilgrims arrived.

“We were always brought up to the land,” said Donna Page, a medicine woman for the Pocassets, whose ancient lands included the Fall River area and over to Freetown and Dartmouth. 

“My father, who was the chief of the tribe, he always took us to the reservation when we were children, and explained stories with his father and him being on the land,” Page said.

The Pocasset Tribe played an important role in the origin stories of early American and Massachusetts history.

Corbitant, a Pocasset sachem from Swansea and adviser to Massasoit, was said to be suspicious of Squanto’s close ties to the Pilgrims and was involved in a battle with Myles Standish over him. Corbitant’s daughter Weetamoe was a female sachem and married to Massasoit’s son Wamsutta, Her sister Wootonekanuske was married to Metacomet, or King Philip, who led the great rebellion against the colonists in 1675 and 1676.

Weetamoe drowned as she tried to escape the colonists tracking her fighters after trying to cross the Taunton River.

Another noteworthy Pocasset was Polly Johnson, who along with her husband Nathan, sheltered Frederick Douglass when he first arrived in New Bedford after escaping slavery.

Notwithstanding their heroic ancestors, it is the love of the land that runs deepest among the present-day Pocassets, many of whom still live on the South Coast. They are after all the descendants of the first Native American aborginal people whose land was overwhelmed by European settlers possessed of a more powerful technology and culture.

Weetamoe. Credit: Public domain

In the last half of the 20th century, the growth of awareness of the dignity and rights of all peoples has resulted in a new pride and determination among Indigenous peoples, and the Pocassets are among them.

For the past 30 years (and informally for decades before that), the Pocassets have struggled mightily to reclaim 96 acres of reservation land east of North Watuppa Pond in a part of Fall River.

The land is located in what used to be called “Indian Town” and is the remnant of some 200 acres originally bequeathed to the Natives who fought on the side of the colonists during the war led by King Philip. 

Actually, the land that Col. Benjamin Church (a legendary colonial military leader from Little Compton) originally negotiated for the Indians was roughly where the Tiverton Casino now stands. But as more and more white settlers cascaded over that part of Tiverton and Fall River, the Natives eventually traded those parcels for more remote land that Church owned near the Copicut Woods, east of North Watuppa Pond.

But even that land, the Pocassets had a hard time holding onto. By 1907, the rapidly growing mill city of Fall River needed a safe source of drinking water for the thousands of immigrant mill workers who had flooded into the humming textile factories of the Yankee owners. The state was the technical keeper of the Indian lands, and it granted Fall River about half of the tribe’s 200 acres.

Today, if the Pocassets want to go onto an Indian cemetery on the Fall River portion of what they still consider their land, they must first get the permission of the city’s forester. The forester then changes out the lock for a special lock for which the Pocassets have a key.

“You can’t even have right of passage to go on your own burial grounds,” said Donna Page. “You have to ask for a key to open a gate. To go visit your ancestors.”

The Pocassets say they have tried to work with a succession of Fall River mayors, city councilors, state reps and senators, but all to no avail. As they have watched the city allow the building of massive new homes on nearby Blossom Road, they say they want what most residents of the city have, access to water and electricity.

On their own portion of what’s left of the reservation — the 96 acres to the easterly side of the original 200 — they would like to have the utilities for structures where they’d like to hold ceremonies and meetings.

The Pocassets have camper-trailer structures and an outhouse in an area that is like a campground on their own portion of the reservation. They access it from Indian Town Road but they must go through the property of Native residents who the Pocassets say are unofficially squatting in the last remaining house on the reservation land. 

Ellie Page and Donna Page at the Pocasset exhibition running at Heritage State Park in Fall River until July 15. Credit: Jack Spillane / The New Bedford Light

Complicating the situation is that the reservation is now located in the conservation area known as the Southeastern Massachusetts Bioreserve. The bioreserve consists of the land of Freetown State Forest, the Copicut Woods, controlled by the nonprofit Trustees of Reservations, and the Watuppa Reservation controlled by the City of Fall River.

The Pocassets — who today number about 250 people in total — say that after more than 300 years, they finally want to be able to control the use of their reservation land. 

“At one point in time, we were being harassed by the reservation (environmental) police up there,” said Ellie Page, the tribe’s historian and wife of current Chief Edward Page. 

“He would say to them, ‘Go find the people that these lands don’t belong to.’ He would say to them, ‘How can you tell me I can’t walk on lands that were my family’s from way back? But you’ve got a sign there that says anybody can walk on this. Everybody can walk on it but me.”

Ellie Page was referring to signs for hikers through the Bioreserve.

Late last year, the tribe was scheduled to have a Zoom meeting with Fall River area legislative delegation members that state Rep. Carole Fiola arranged. The meeting was also to have included state Sen. Mike Rodrigues, but the tribe members say that the delegation members never appeared. 

Fiola and Rodrigues said there were “technical” problems with the meeting, and it has not been rescheduled. 

The Pocassets have had a number of lawyers over the years, but they have limited means and say they really need a financial backer who can hire someone to work with the state to find a solution that will help them reclaim their land.

“Basically, what we have been asking for is anyone who thinks that they could help us to solve the situation. We would be more than happy to meet with them,” said Ellie.

Asked if they would like federal recognition (as other branches of the Wampanoags have gained,) she said they would. But given the federal law and bureaucracy, she acknowledged it would be “a long haul” to get there.

“Our immediate need is to get the land back,” she said.

“And we’re not going anywhere,” said Donna.

Editor’s Note: The group described in this column is the Pocasset Wampanoag Tribe of Massachusetts and Rhode Island. It is recognized by the state of Massachusetts, according to the state Commission on Indian Affairs. A separate group calls itself the Pocasset Wampanoag Tribe of the Pokanoket Nation.

Email Jack Spillane at jspillane@newbedfordlight.org.

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