When the Mayflower docked at North American shores in 1620, it not only marked the impending colonisation of Native Americans but also the environmental devastation of their land, which continues to this day in the name of “development.”
The Wampanoag (or Wôpanâak–People of the First Light), who have lived in Massachusetts and Eastern Rhode Island (Turtle Island) for over 15,000 years, once nurtured an uninterrupted reciprocal and sustainable relationship with their land, before it was stolen from them to be exploited by its captors for profit at the expense of its health. As of today, they only have control over about 1% of their traditional territory.
However, justice and land health is slowly but surely being restored in the work being done by a primarily Wampanoag-led organisation, the Native Land Conservancy (NLC) – the first Native-led conservation organisation east of the Mississippi.
“As a Wampanoag, like most indigenous people, my culture is earth based. Throughout life, I and my people have felt the destruction being done to our homelands and sought ways to slow, stop and heal. Founding the NLC is one answer.”
In 2012, NLC was founded with the ethos to not only preserve and steward the land and water it cares for, but also with a mission to restore it back to its original state “for the four-legged, the two-legged, the winged, and the finned.”
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Further, NLC is groundbreaking not only in conservation approach, but the unique ways in which it acquires and stewards its land. As Ramona Peters states:
“I founded the NLC to see if people would be inclined to give some land back at this point in our social evolution.”
To learn more about the organisation’s work and workings, Impakter spoke to Paula Peters, Communications and Programs Coordinator for NLC, active citizen of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, former journalist, independent scholar and writer of Wampanoag history and contemporary culture, and founder of the Native American creative agency, SmokeSygnals.
How did Native Land Conservancy come to be founded?
Paula Peters: It was started by my cousin Ramona Peters, and she had this vision that land could be recovered by Indigenous People and be protected and preserved and restored, even for all manner of uses — for us to have ceremony to harvest wild plants and herbs, and just to enjoy the environment as it was meant to be enjoyed. And we live in a region that has suffered greatly from overdevelopment.
I like to consider myself not that old, but I’m 64 years old and I can remember a time when our waters were clear and we had less congestion in our region. Now, we have all of these issues like, for instance, we have a pond in our town. It’s the marsh; we made the pond, which is a very large pond, and it’s been contaminated with bacteria. So we can no longer swim in [it]. If you ask me when I was a kid, if I thought a day like that could ever happen, I would say to you no, that’s ridiculous. Look how beautifully clear this water is. But all of that has changed in our ancestral lands; our ancestral waters have become contaminated.
So, the goal was to try to begin recovering lands — particularly lands that could address this threat of overdevelopment and contamination. It was founded back in 2011 for that purpose.
We do have a sole source aquifer under Cape Cod that we have to protect; that is our water source. And that is something that is also a driving force behind land protection and conservation. Because if that saltwater source aquifer is contaminated, we [can’t have] the water. You have to really protect it.
All the people who founded and who run NLC have such rich expertise and coherent values, such as founder Ramona Peters with her background in Native American repatriation and cultural preservation; Leslie Jonas, an eel clan member of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, with expertise in land conservation and climate change, and of course, yourself as a scholar and keeper of Wampanoag cultural history as well as a writer, producer and journalist. How does this shape NLC’s running?
Paula Peters: Well, it’s really important that NLC is Indigenous led and that by design there are people from various tribes actually that are on the board. So it’s not just Mashpee Wampanoag, it’s Mashpee Herring Pond Wampanoag [and] we have a board member who’s from the Nipmuc tribe.
These different backgrounds of people [can] support the overall goal of conservation of land from different perspectives, whether it be the historical perspective, the land preservation perspective, cultural perspective; all of those things are important in supporting the overall mission, which is to protect and preserve and restore ancestral lands [for] the enjoyment of people going forward.
How much land does NLC steward?
Paula Peters: NLC holds title to 65 acres of land, cultural respect easements on 460 acres of land and conservation restrictions on 811 acres of land. We’ve gone national [so] that includes 776 acres of Muskogee land in Alabama.
Centreville Pine Forest, a 1.4 acre Pine-Oak forest, abundant with American Beech, American Holly, White and Pitch Pines, and Black and White Oaks, was the first piece of land donated to the NLC in 2015 by Norman Hayes. How did it feel to receive this piece of land and what is NLC’s relationship to it?
Paula Peters: The best feeling that you can get is when someone recognizes that that land is sacred and that it should be restored to the original owners. It’s not a particularly fancy piece of land. There’s no water frontage or anything like that. As a matter of fact, it’s right near a highway, but it’s land that we know will never be built upon because it’s now in our care and custody.
“Wachônumk ahkee kah ahkee peesh kuwachônuqunâw” (Take care of the Land, and the Land will take care of you.)
–Stephen Hayes, Norman Hayes’ father and a founder of the Barnstable Land Trust.
What did the Wampanoag relationship with the land look like before colonisation?
Paula Peters: Certainly there was more balance in the way that we live with the Earth and taking only what we need and being conscious and aware of what nature needs to sustain itself. So we didn’t go about clear cutting forests to build villages because those forests are critical to the balance of nature. Just like you wouldn’t hunt for deer in their mating season because it’s critical to them [in] continuing to be prosperous.
What kind of plants are important to land restoration?
Paula Peters: I know we’re working on identifying locations where we can [identify] or reestablish something called Bull Rush [which] was a plant historically used to make mats that we used in creating our housing. And so we are looking forward to reestablishing that tradition.
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The Wampanoag Common Lands, donated by the Muddy Pond Trust, is dedicated to the undisturbed use by Wampanoag people and has noted importance for being the location where the “first impact of colonization of this country happened.” How is NLC going about this land restoration?
Paula Peters: [The property is] 32 plus acres in, in the town of Kingston, which is probably about a 45 minute drive from Mashpee. But it’s a beautiful spot that had been used by a Catholic school as a summer camp, and the structures that were in the property were removed and old camp buildings [were] taken away. We’ve been addressing the invasive species that have been found on the property and taking those away and just trying to encourage the natural species of the environment to flourish.
A common practice in UK conservation organisations is to prevent regrowth of invasive trees by applying blue poison to the stumps. How does NLC tackle invasive species?
Paula Peters: We don’t do that. [There’s] something called bittersweet that we’ve been trying to remove. We found a big patch of [it] and we covered it over with a mac that starved the bittersweet of the rain and the sun and the things that it needed to thrive on. And that is helping to remove it. So, no, we don’t use poison.
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What other kinds of donations have NLC received?
Paula Peters: In the last year or so, we’ve had people who’ve actually donated their house. There is a gentleman who has bequeathed his property. He’s still with us and he still lives in the house, but he has willed it to NLC. So at the time that he leaves this earth, his house and property will become assets that are to do with us as we please.
Then there was another gentleman who was doing the same thing for a piece of property that he has on Cape Cod and Cotuit which is very near by Mashpee. He was going to do the same thing — to leave it in his will. But then he decided that he really didn’t have a lot of use for the property in his lifetime and he would rather see it benefit NLC in his lifetime.
So on his own birthday, he gifted the land to NLC last year and it’s now being used. There’s a cottage on his property that we use to house our college fellows who are working with us [in the] summer. Housing here is really hard to come by, so that gift is playing a very important role in our work this summer because [we had] three fellows working with NLC and they have important projects that they’re researching.
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A trailblazing aspect of NLC is the progress you are making with cultural access to land, such as the Cultural Respect Easement you established with the Dennis Conservation Land Trust in 2021, the first of its kind on land east of the Mississippi River. Could you explain what this is and how it works?
Paula Peters: The Cultural Respect Easements are specifically agreements that we make with land conservation groups. Or it could be an individual that owns land that could do the same thing — just to say that they understand the intrinsic connection between the indigenous people of the region and that land, and that there should be an opportunity for those people to use that land, whether it be for ceremony or for foraging or just for recreational purposes.
It’s like giving licence to the indigenous people to come in and practise their culture and their traditions on that land.
– Ramona Peters.
You also hold Conservation Easements, such as one with Chop Chaque Bogs, a retired cranberry bog in Mashpee; what is the difference between Conservation Easements (or Restrictions) and Cultural Respect Easements?
Paula Peters: Conservation restriction is a simple thing that restricts the owner of the property from developing the land. A cultural respect easement means that not only is that land protected for generations to come, but they’ve also invited Indigenous people to come to return to the land and to practise their culture there.
As a coastal people, how is climate change affecting your lives and livelihoods and is NLC working towards any means to mitigate its effects?
Paula Peters: I think the best that we can do is acknowledge and be aware of how climate change is changing our environment. It is causing, for certain Indigenous plantings not to thrive in the same way that they had for centuries and [it is] certainly impacting the wildlife and our human lives. I think that the role that NLC takes in all of that is to just be conscious and aware and connect; to not deny it.
What is the youth’s role in conservation?
Paula Peters: Well, there’s David Vanderhoop’s group called Sassafras and there’s another camp in Mashpee where the young people are encouraged to get out into nature and to understand their natural environment.
There’s a specific youth group that has grown up in the last six months or so, that has had the focus of restoring herring runs and being active in our goal to enrich the Herring run, which [is] something that we have [done] for generations and generations. That’s been a great source of not just food, but for fertiliser, for our soils and things like that. And we use that fish.
That fish has been a big part of our lives. They bring the young people down to the river and teach them about the importance of the herring and their cycle of life and how they come and spawn in the ponds. Somehow or another, these very simple creatures find their way back again that same time the following year to lay eggs and do it all over again.
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Are there any volunteer opportunities open to the public?
Paula Peters: We have different Landcare events that we put out. They do inspire a lot of people to come out. I shouldn’t say this, but I was really surprised that so many people wanted to come out and get their hands dirty and get involved in our Landcare. But people really enjoy that.
Do you have anything in the works right now? What is NLC’s vision for the future?
Paula Peters: We are pursuing other lands that we think might be threatened for development or misuse, which covers a lot of territory. And pursuing the purchase of lands and also advocating for [them]. The right types of climate change solutions, and supporting cultural education for both tribal entities and for the public.
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Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by the authors are their own, not those of Impakter.com — In the Featured Photo: Western Grebe – Mashpee Pond, Mashpee, MA. Featured Photo Credit: Peter Flood.