University of Massachusetts Dartmouth
ANT 344H: Cultures of Memory
Plimoth Plantation: Forming Collective Memory about the Treatment of Native Americans
The collective memory of a nation never simplifies to unbiased truths, retold in history classes and by media representations of the past. Instead, collective memory must be developed, fought over, and influenced by stakeholders concerned with how certain issues become engrained in a nation’s citizens. Bodnar describes collective memory as “produced from a political discussion that involves… fundamental issues about the entire existence of a society: its organization, structure of power, and the very meaning of its past and present,” (Bodnar, 1992). This suggests that history never simply becomes part of our public memory, but that only through tedious debate and discussion does a nation determine how it will remember the significant events that shape its past. Of course, this process becomes infinitely more complex when a nation’s actions appear significantly unethical or even appalling in nature.
Unfortunately, situations where unethical actions tarnish a nation’s past are numerous, and the debate over how a nation must remember these acts remains a point of controversy for all countries struggling with these issues. Germany debates how to remember Hitler and the Holocaust while Japan has slowly begun to address its abusive conduct towards China in the Second Sino-Japanese War. And the United States undoubtedly has many unpleasant aspects of its past to atone for as well. Among many, one of the earliest unethical acts of colonists involved the genocide of the Native American peoples, which continued well into our nation’s development as a means to secure more land. And while our country has attempted to make amends for the wrongs committed against such a large group of people, collective memory has been slow to incorporate, to a fuller extend, the details of this atrocity.
As Crabtree, Dunn and Nash argue in their book History on Trial, conservatives often believe history class should be an opportunity to instill “American” values in their young citizens rather than expose students to past injustices. This traditionalist approach involves whitewashing history in order to produce an idealized version of the past void of any discussion of oppression, atrocities committed, or ethnic history. This way, children will be left with the impression that America is an untarnished, uncomplicated nation of white heroes, which leaves government faultless and deserving of unquestioned loyalty and support. We can only hope that over time history texts, teachers, and other sources of portraying the past will become more open to a multiculturalist method of teaching history. In this approach, the struggles of minorities and ethnic groups are not viewed as shameful, but serve to enrich children’s knowledge of the many cultures in America whose people had to fight for basic freedoms, not just the stories preapproved by those in power.
In actuality, these changes over time do occur, though slowly and often not without a significant amount of protest. In order to explore how these changes in collective memory occur and how the nation deals with remembering the atrocities committed, I chose to look into one of the most well-known living museums in Massachusetts, Plimoth Plantation. Today, the museum serves as a prominent source of collective memory for New England children regarding the Native American story. The Plantation focuses on “bringing the past to life” through portraying the everyday life of Pilgrims and their Native American neighbors. The history of the museum’s progression to include the Native American perspective exemplifies Bodnar’s ‘struggle for supremacy,’ where those in power directly clash with common people’s voice in deciding how history should be represented. The research meant to address three major questions: how we form collective memory when faced with confronting the unethical acts committed in our nation’s past such as the treatment of Native Americans; how the Plantation has changed to become more receptive to the Native American voice; and how the museum exhibits alter the collective memories of those who visit the museum. Overall, it was found that through forceful protest the narrative of a particular memory site can be changed to incorporate the minority’s voice. Still, the Plimoth Plantation, though perhaps unconsciously, still remains hesitant to tell the entire truth regarding the atrocities committed to the Native Americans by European colonists, who began a trend that continued well into the forming of our nation.
In order to gain a sense of how Plimoth Plantation has developed overtime, I conducted several interviews with those involved with the Plantation, such as John Kemp, the director of the Colonial Interpretation Program at the museum, and several Wampanoag volunteers. I also looked into several newspaper articles to gain an understanding of how the press viewed the living museum, and looked at other sources that helped illustrate Plimoth Plantation’s journey over time. I quickly discovered that the museum has undergone numerous transformations between its start in 1947 to the present day with the goal of becoming as accurate as possible and stimulating interest in our nation’s past.
Plimoth Plantation was founded by Henry Hornblower II, an amateur archaeologist who wanted to discover more about the nation’s historic colonists and their life. Kemp described the man’s knowledge of the Pilgrims as “minimal at best.” This becomes clearer upon looking through the Plantation’s 1948 program which details the museum, its building plans and its goals to create a realistic replica of Plymouth’s first settlement in its beginning years. In its opening page, the program quotes Governor William Bradford, who describes the Pilgrims as “…the spiritual ancestors of all Americans, whatever their stock, race or creed,” which begins to reveal how early creators of the Plantation intended on representing their Pilgrims as analogous to fairy-tale heroes. A 1991 article from “Historic Preservation Magazine” further describes the museum’s founder’s desires to “enhance our origins by bestowing something akin to sainthood on such primal figures as the Pilgrim Fathers” (Gillette, 1991). The article reveals how the early Plantation aimed more at glorifying the Pilgrim myth than providing an accurate depiction of colonial life by quoting James Baker, the head of research at Plimoth at the time, “We were going to show what the Pilgrims looked like, in spite of the fact that we didn’t know what the pilgrims looked like.”
Upon further inspecting the program, the lack of Native American voice or influence becomes evident. The program, which consists of a full thirty-one pages, mentions the “Indians” only once, when describing the Indian village in a mere two sentences: “The Pilgrims were among the most successful of the early settlers in their relations with the Indians. A small Indian Village consisting of several typical houses will be built near the First Street,” (Plimoth Plantation, Inc., 1948). Furthermore, after reviewing the list of eighteen advisors to Plimoth Plantation, Inc. and their credentials, it becomes evident that not one of them was Native American, or even had any background in working with Native Americans. During the interview with Kemp, the director also stresses this lack of early knowledge regarding the Native American peoples: “they hired Deetz, a Harvard Grad, to build the first Indian wigwam. The Wampanoag did not even live in wigwams, only the western Native American’s lived in them.” He continued to detail early representations of the Native American as crude and inaccurate, and revealed that at early Thanksgiving feast presentations, high school students dressed up in wigs and with painted faces served as the only representation of the Native American voice.
The Plantation changed little within its first twenty-five years, and only minimally included the voice of the Wampanoag, the Native American tribe who interacted with the Pilgrims upon their arrival and whose land the Pilgrims occupied. Prior to 1970, the Wampanoag were allowed little say in their representation at the Plantation, and lacked an organized movement to demand change or the right to be represented accurately as a people. As a consequence, those in control of the Plantation continued to whitewash their depiction of the time period, minimizing the ethnic story and instead presenting Plimoth with mostly only the white Pilgrims as a focus, paying little care to the detail or significance of the Wampanoag. When they were mentioned, as found in a coloring book from 1954, the Native Americans were viewed as a very simple people, frightened by the noise of cannons and happy to welcome the Pilgrims to their homeland. The caption beneath an image of a Native American man reads, “Here is Samoset… He liked the Pilgrims,” and another, “Massasoit was chief of the Wampanoags. He welcomed the pilgrims and made friends with them” (Overly, 1954). The coloring book, meant to teach children about the colonist-Native American relations, paints a glorified, happy-go-lucky image in which Pilgrims and Native Americans greet one another with open arms. In actuality, the Wampanoag and Pilgrim’s first encounter included gun shots and mistrust, and it was some time before a reluctant treaty between the two peoples was reached.
But by 1970, the Wampanoag were ready to claim a voice in the Plantation. At this time, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was more than resistant to allow any mention of the horrific treatment of Native Americans into its fairy tale, imagined colonial world. Frank “Wamsutta” James, an Aquinnah Wampanoag elder, was invited to give a speech on Thanksgiving in 1970 at a state dinner, launching the commemoration of the 350th anniversary of Plymouth Colony. His intended speech spoke out angrily against the historic oppression of all Native peoples. As Paula Peters, Plimoth Plantation’s Director of Marketing and a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, details in her keynote address at an annual Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants meeting, “…when [James] submitted the text for review, it was cut and censored so savagely he hardly recognized the words as his own. So Frank James refused to deliver the censored version, and instead gathered Native people from across the nation to hear his unedited remarks… that would become known as the first National Day of Mourning” (Peters, 2009). Finally, the Native American protest would begin to demand a voice within the Plantation at the base of Coles Hill, encouraged by James’ powerful words.
While the Day of Mourning for Native Americans continues even today, it only took three short years before pressures from the Native American community forced the Plantation to incorporate the Native American voice and participation in the program. The protesting included marches, skits and demonstrations aimed at contrasting the Thanksgiving celebration with their deep sense of mourning and loss. Furthermore, these protests became an outlet for the Native Americans to express a political voice, which “call[ed] for justice on many fronts, including better teaching of Native American history in school,” (Zaremba, 2005) and between 1970-1972 they felt they deserved a place at Plimoth Plantation. In 1972, the Native Americans could finally celebrate a significant victory towards their cause: the founding of the Wampanoag Indigenous Program. This program served to protect the voice and the rights of the Wampanoag people, and eventually the Plantation was forced to incorporate more focus on the Native American side of the Plymouth colony’s story. One interview with a Wampanoag volunteer at the Plantation revealed that change did not happen immediately. The man stressed that “the Wampanoag part started in 1973, but there were no natives at first. Eventually we were incorporated in the program, but it was like we had to earn our keep. The people here were very suspicious of us at first, and definitely felt forced to have us” (Interview with Native American volunteer, 3/22/10).
This could be considered the beginning of a very steady commitment to changing the Plimoth Plantation narrative. Once the Wampanoag claimed partial control over their own story, the Plantation eventually embraced this new bicultural approach to the museum. The Hobbamock Homesite, dedicated to displaying the Wampanoag way of life, continued to grow immensely, while the crafts center grew to incorporate and showcase Wampanoag tools and art. The additional, temporary special-interest exhibits began to focus on interesting aspects of the Wampanoag as well as the Pilgrims. And when the museum realized that children were too preoccupied with questions from the Pilgrim village by the time they reached the Wampanoag campsite, the Plantation even made an effort to alter the route visitors would take. This way, the children could more easily understand that the Wampanoag were actual Native Americans, not imposters like the actors from the Pilgrim village. The Wampanoag interviewee recognizes and applauds these commitments made by the Plantation over the past decade, explaining that “the Hobbamock Homesite grew from one building with little research behind it to an entire village, and we are now almost on the same level as the Pilgrim village and looking to become just as large.”
All the progress the Wampanoag have made in making their story heard extends past Plimoth Plantation. The tribe originally appealed for recognition in 1974, but to no avail. This goal was not realized until the headway they had made at the plantation had generated a significant amount of press and interest. In 2007, the Mashpee Wampanoag finally became a federally recognized tribe. Harpman Deetz, president of the Wampanoag’s Language Reclamation Program, celebrates this accomplishment, declaring “it means that the folks who have come into our land recognize that we are a people and that we are here… We don’t have a homeland to go back to… this is where we came from.” This triumph represented their newfound visibility to the public as a united people (Himaras, 2007).
The Wampanoag’s long struggle to gain recognition and the ability to take part in sharing their own collective narrative becomes apparent after thoroughly researching the evolution of the museum. Plimoth Plantation has grown immensely from an inaccurate, fairy-tale representation of the mythical Pilgrims, to a more truthful depiction of two very different peoples. The Plantation has been more recently described as “an institution that has acknowledged and built on its mistakes,” (Gillette, 1991) which recognizes the long process the Plantation has undergone to shift its narrative from a one-sided, whitewashed depiction of the Pilgrims, to a multicultural story including the Wampanoag voice.
When visiting the museum today, the Plantation’s intentions to highlight the Wampanoag and their unique culture are apparent. The Plantation offers a new film, Two Peoples: One Story, upon arrival, which works to prove that “no doubt, the Wampanoag story is just as important as the story of the Pilgrims,” (Harbert, 2006). The film not only features the Wampanoag’s language, but also “goes beyond the happily-ever-after myth” as the narrator of the film announces, revealing some of the European’s behaviors towards the indigenous peoples, including capturing twenty Wampanoag who were taken back to Europe to become spectacles and slaves.
But this brief and sugarcoated mentioning of the brutal treatment of Native Americans ends here. In no other location in the entire museum are these treatments of the Native Americans mentioned. Therefore, my research did not end here; Plimoth Plantation’s significant changes over time only tell half the story. While the museum has been receptive to demands to include the Wampanoag story and incorporating the tribe’s people as well as more accurately representing their life, the museum still seems to fall short of conveying the truly appalling treatment of the Native Americans in our country. The Plantation purposefully chooses to focus on a time where colonist-Native American relations were civil, and fails to make visitors aware that the museum portrays a rare and temporary time of peace between the European settlers and the indigenous people they would eventually commit mass genocide and atrocities against.
And this brief mentioning of abuses only begins to detail of how Native Americans were actually treated by colonists, and by the United States government later on. The Spanish came to the Americas with the intent to conquer, and view the native peoples there as simple and barbaric. Native American land was stolen and the indigenous peoples were slaughtered or captured to be taken back to Europe as slaves. Diseases brought by colonists wiped out entire populations, and those who survived were forced into accepting the colonists’ religions and used as indentured servants, or serfs, who were ultimately worked to death. Temporary alliances, like the one formed between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag, nearly always ended in war and massacre. The Plymouth Colony’s treaty ended in 1675 at the start of King Philip’s War, which began after the Native American people had long suffered from lack of resources and trading goods (Pilgrim Hall, 2005). Even the Plymouth colonists refused the Native Americans rights to their own land and resources. Though the pretend Pilgrims at the museum, who role-play as though the year were 1627, would not mention these events, the end of the treaty that essentially created Plimoth Plantation is not mentioned once within any other part of the museum.
Brutal massacres of the indigenous people occurred across the nation, including in New England, such as the massacre in Connecticut, which took place in 1635. Plymouth Governor William Bradford stood witness, and paraphrased Captain John Mason’s account of the massacre he had led: “It was a fearful fight to see them thus frying in the fire and the streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stink… but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice…over so proud and insulting an enemy” (Byrd, 2001). The Native American people endured countless slaughtering and abuses of their people by colonists across the nation. And these abuses continued once the United States became an independent country. In 1830, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, after the population began to grow, and Americans wanted to claim Native American lands for their own. After much protest, including legal protest in the Supreme Court, the Cherokee people were ultimately still forced from their lands to walk thousands of miles on minimal provisions to the new land allotted to them. Nearly 4000 Cherokee Native Americans died during this Trail of Tears.
However, the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag operated under a peace treaty between the years 1620-1675, and so, perhaps strategically, the museum has an excuse to take little initiative in making visitors aware of the true extent of the atrocities, because the museum focuses primarily on the everyday life of its two peoples in the year 1627. Still, the museum remains responsible as a major source of collective memory-making for children about the Native Americans and their story. While the museum has modified so much to include the Native American perspective, it still remains unwilling to bring to light the full story of colonist-Native American relations in our nation.
In order to fully gauge what type of narrative the Plantation was forming for its visitors, I conducted several interviews and asked my classmates to collect interviews with people who had visited the Plantation to gain a better understanding of what information and impressions people were leaving the museum with. These interviews would primarily focus on finding some collective narrative about how the Plantation treats the issue of genocide against the Native Americans by settlers just like the Pilgrims. During these interviews, I asked several questions aimed at allowing the interviewee to convey their overall impressions of the museum. The complete interview consisted of six major questions:
Why did you go to Plimoth Plantation; what were your expectations and were they met or not? What did you learn from the Wampanoag campsite portion of the Plantation? What kinds of interactions did you witness between the Wampanoag’s and the Pilgrims’, if any? What was your overall impression of Wampanoag-colonist relations from the museum: friendly, untrusting, cooperative, etc.? In your visit, did you encounter anything regarding the treatment of Native Americans outside Plimoth Plantation? How does the Plimoth Plantation presentation of how Native Americans were treated by colonists compare to other accounts you have of this relationship?
To find a variety of responses, I conducted ten interviews and collected six from my classmates, to make a total of sixteen interviews with Plantation visitors within a wide age range of fifteen to seventy years old. However, most interviewees were within a range of eighteen to twenty-four years old, and so they had visited Plimoth Plantation about eight to ten years ago.
The results of these interviews revealed clear patterns as to what collective narrative the Plantation has left to its visitors. Overwhelmingly, people’s reasons for visiting the museum mostly involved some sort of educational field trip, whether endorsed by their elementary schools or from parents. The living museum has always intended to be an opportunity for children to discover life in another time and over the past twenty years has also put an emphasis on its bicultural story. The Plantation has come to pride itself on its focus of accurately depicting the Native American way of life and their story within the founding of the Plymouth Colony. Accordingly, schools and parents have viewed the museum as an interactive and exciting way to engage their children in the past. This makes it all the more important to ensure that the museum provides an accurate illustration of the oppression of the Native American peoples, so not to instill inaccurate impressions of history within its young visitors.
Yet it would seem the Plantation has fallen short of providing the whole truth to visitors. While most interviewees could recall interesting details about the Native American’s cooking, hunting, living conditions, clothing, and other basic tasks, few could recall any interaction between the Native American’s within their campsite and the Pilgrims from their village across the Plantation. The Plantation allows visitors to explore each culture separately rather than focus on the struggles of interaction between the two groups. About four interviewees could recall specific interactions, and each involved the Native Americans and colonists exchanging food, knowledge or gifts. Otherwise, interviewees could recall no direct relations. And even with the Plantation’s highlighting of the Native American campsite, some younger visitors still do not understand who they are speaking with. One interviewee explained in detail how she knew that she was speaking with “fake Indians,” even when one man explained he lived at the Plantation even at night, but she “knew that this was a charade.” But this was not a charade, and the Wampanoag volunteers do live at the Plantation while the museum is open.
Furthermore, all interviewees who could recall their overall impression of relations at the museum described them as friendly, or at least cooperative. One interviewee said, “I thought that the Indians and Pilgrims were friends… I remember that when their interactions were described, it was described in a friendly, helpful manner… the Indians taught the Pilgrims how to grow corn and they all shared dinner together,” revealing that the Plantation depicts this relationship in a wholly positive light. Not a single interviewee mentioned recalling anything specific about negative relations, or any mistreatment of the Native Americans as a whole. This implies that while the museum may accurately depict life during the peace treaty, it does little to educate about the full picture. And while the museum’s intention was never to depict any time other than 1627, this still contributes to the misrepresentation of colonists’ treatment of Native Americans.
Most shockingly, when asked how this representation of relations compared with other sources of information, most interviewees said that prior to high school, this depiction matched what they were being taught in history class. Most interviewees, ten out of sixteen, mentioned that their first education involving Native Americans focused mostly on the “Thanksgiving story,” where Native Americans welcomed the Pilgrims onto their land, shared knowledge about their food and were indebted to the Pilgrims for saving the life of their chief, Massasoit. Yet the founding of our nation directly involves the mass genocide of the Native American people. However, because of children’s young age and because of the difficulty in explaining these atrocities, this story remains silenced until high school. But after years of learning only about the happy-go-lucky relations between Native Americans and the Pilgrims, it is these impressions that last, and the Native Americans’ true story of oppression becomes tangled with the Thanksgiving fairy tale.
I acknowledge that because most interviewees were in an older age range, eighteen to twenty-four, these interviews cannot grant a fully accurate depiction of the impressions the Plantation makes today, in light of the changes made within the past ten years. However, following my recent visit to the museum, I saw little modified in regards to Wampanoag-colonist relations. There was still minimal interaction between the two groups, and the museum failed to discuss any treatment of the Native Americans after the treaty had collapsed or America had become its own nation. Of course, the film Two Peoples: One Story does work to amend the impression that relations were totally pleasant and peaceful, allowing for the film to convey an air of tension for its viewers. Still, this more realistic depiction, which lasts approximately fifteen minutes, is the only mention of any unpleasant treatment towards Native Americans throughout the entire Plantation.
Plimoth Plantation is not alone in its reluctance to divulge the “nasty truth” to its visitors. In Leon and Rosenzweig’s History Museums in the US: a Critical Assessment, they detail biases of many living-history museums across the country. Many museums refuse to show any depiction of minority groups, focusing instead on middle-income and upper-income Protestants in agrarian settings and none of sixty listed living-museums re-create the civil war, another difficult issue in the United States past. In this regard, Plimoth Plantation has progressed significantly ahead of many other museums, by embracing the voice of the Wampanoag, and no longer whitewashing their side of the story. Still, many living-history museums, including Plimoth, “tend to downplay aspects of community life that are dysfunctional or produce conflict,” (Leon & Piatt, 1989) as interviews revealed by detailing the Plantation’s lack of interaction between Native Americans and colonists. Of course, if they had interacted, these interactions would have undoubtedly been made absent of any conflicts. Historically, these conflicts were plentiful, including disputes over trading goods, land and religion, all of which is left out of the Plimoth Plantation museum narrative.
Plimoth Plantation will always be considered a children’s museum, first and foremost, and therefore, many people will remain reluctant to incorporate this aspect of the Native American story into the museum. When speaking with one woman who had brought her children to the museum, I asked how she felt the Plantation dealt with the horrible atrocities committed against Native Americans. She replied that “For a museum aimed at children, it’s enough for the kids to get a sense of Plimoth as a diverse place. The gory details are not necessarily needed at a family museum like this. Instead, the museum is endorsing ethnic diversity, communication and acceptance.” The museum has undoubtedly improved tenfold from when it began in embracing the Native American voice, and allowing children to gain a sense of ethnic diversity. But this cheerful depiction of relations between Native Americans and Pilgrims promotes more inaccuracy than acceptance. While it is inarguably important to allow children access to the Wampanoag voice and a means to understand their way of life, the museum still contributes to leaving a collective narrative absent of the struggles the Native Americans faced. And including this narrative will only further promote the ethnic diversity and acceptance the mother praised the museum for.
Overall, researching the museum’s transformation reveals how challenging and complex the journey can be for minorities to make their voice heard, and the ‘struggle for supremacy,’ as Bodnar explains, will always be a difficult one. The Wampanoag fought for their right to accurately depict their way of life, and educate the public about their tribe. This message that Plimoth Plantation offers is a highly valuable one, one that children will undoubtedly benefit from. But it seems that the Wampanoag have not yet reached a complete victory, and the museum still has a ways to go in terms of addressing the treatment of Native Americans. As an important site of collective memory-making for New England children, the Plantation’s silencing of this particular narrative illustrates the difficulties of remembering atrocities committed in our nation’s past, and chronicles how this particular memory site has dealt with, or chose not to deal with the issue.
These appalling collective memories will always be the most difficult to forge, and to accurately represent. Still, the Plantation strives to correct previously white-washed depictions of our colonial ancestors, and has included a bicultural and more accurate picture of the Wampanoag. This shift towards the multicultural approach to history, as detailed by Crabtree, Dunn and Nash, will greatly benefit children who visit the museum. As Kemp stressed in our interview, “the Plantation’s goal has always been to strive to bring the museum as close to the truth as possible.” And while the road has been a trying one, the museum does still attempt to amend its inaccuracies, and highlight the ethnic diversity of the Plymouth colony. Hopefully in the future the museum will begin to include more about the oppression the Native American people faced, and allow children to understand the full story. Even when the truth is unpleasant, difficult or even horrific, its silencing will not prove beneficial. Instead, these atrocities should be taught and remembered, to further promote ethnic diversity and acceptance in the future.
Bodnar, John. (1992). Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth
Century. Princeton: Princeton University Press. pp. 1-20.
Byrd, Al. (2001). Native American Genocide. Retrieved from: http://www.wicocomico-indian-
Crabtree, C., Dunn, R. & Nash, B. (2000). History on Trial: Culture wars and the teachings of
the past. New York: Vintage Books.
Gillette, Jane B. (1991). Pilgrims’ Progress. Historic Preservation Magazine, 22-24.
Harbert, Rich. (2006, April 10). Two Peoples: One Story. MPG Newspapers. pp. 12-14.
Himaras, Eleni. (2007, April 1). A Year of Milestones. The Patriot Ledger. pp. 17-18.
Leon, Warren & Piatt, Margaret. (1989). History Museums in the US: A Critical Assesment.
University of Illinois Press. pp. 65-69
Overly, Charles H. (1954). The Pilgrim Story Coloring Book.
Peters, Paula. (2009). Keynote Address for the Massachusetts Society of Mayflower
Descendants. Plimoth Life,8, 25-27.
Pilgrim Hall, (2005, May 18). King Philip’s War. Retrieved from
Plimoth Plantation, Inc. (1948). Plimoth Plantation. Plymouth, Massachusetts: Plimoth
Zaremba, John. (2005, November 25). Thanksgiving in Plymouth and a Day to Mourn. The
Patriot Ledger. pp. 11-12.