the mother of all injustices

Right this second I’m listening to the Supreme Court debate Native American treaty rights, but first I had to watch the West Wing episode above, which asks its Native characters how they keep fighting amid the “mother of all injustices.” The answer, of course, is a question: “What’s the alternative?”

As a non-Native journalist, I know that my words aren’t the ones that count here as McGirt is being argued: better to read Ruth Hopkins at Indian Country Today, or the Twitter feed of Debbie Reese. But I listen in part because I’ve written a little about the Mashpee Wampanoag, the tribe featured in most tales of the First Thanksgiving. That Nation is at this moment in danger of being “disestablished” by the Dept of the Interior, an issue being fought in court right now. As the Harvard Crimson explains well, the Mashpee have been fighting for sovereignty for 200+ years. Indian Country Today tells us that on May 20, in DC, the tribe already fighting the pandemic will stand up and tell the court why it should not be disestablished.

Neither ICT, the Crimson nor the Justices mention William Apess, who I’ve been reading, writing and thinking about for more than a decade, including on this blog. Though that 2011 post doesn’t give you why Apess, a soldier in the War of 1812 born to a Pequot father and formerly enslaved mother, led me to the Mashpee:

“Apess’ last home was in Boston, a hotbed of anti-removal activism. In 1832, William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper The Liberator, whose masthead included a symbol of broken treaties, noted, “A short interview with [Apess] has given us a very favorable opinion of his talents and piety.” Garrison was also a key supporter when, in the following year, Apess was arrested in what the newspapers called the “Mashpee riot.”

On a visit to the Groton Pequot reservation soon after he met with Garrison, Apess was told by his father that if he truly wanted to help Indians, Apess had to go north and minister to the Mashpee. A tiny, 329-strong nation, the Mashpee had tried without success to disrupt their absentee overseers, but were blocked by an assigned, Harvard-paid white Congregationalist missionary. When Apess arrived, the Mashpee adopted him so that he could advocate for them. He either wrote or heavily influenced the petition with an accompanying four-point autonomy plan that the tribe presented to Governor Josiah Quincy. The petition mentioned Mashpee warriors who had died while in the Continental Army.

Apess was certainly at the Mashpee plantation when four white lumbermen showed up and began to cut wood from the tribal forest, only to be informed by some large, armed Indians that they had better stop and leave. Governor Quincy, reportedly fearing a Nat Turner-style rebellion, sent in the state militia and ordered the “rioters” arrested, including the “Indian preacher.”

For the next six months, Apess became famous and/or notorious, in the now-classic role of civil-rights-organizer-as-outside-agitator. One issue of The Liberator swooned over Apess’ statement before the state House of Representatives. “He illustrated the manner in which extortions were made from the poor Indians, and plainly declared that they wanted their rights as men and as freemen,” Garrison wrote. The following year, with support from “Garrisonian” legislators, a far-reaching law gave the Mashpee more autonomy over their lands.[i]

Such limited victories hardly spelled the kind of justice for which Apess was riding around the country. His final work was the passionate Eulogy for King Philip, referring to Metacom, the 17th-century Wampanoag leader who had fought the Puritans. “Does it not appear that the cause of all wars was and is: That the whites have always been the aggressors, and the wars, cruelties and blood shed, is a job of their own making, and not the Indians?”[ii] |


[i]       Kim McQuaid, “William Apess, Pequot: An Indian Reformer in the Jackson Era. “The New England Quarterly,” 50: 4 (1977), 605-625.

[ii]      The Black Panthers,150 years later, could have borrowed that sentence intact.”

The above has just been officially copyrighted by New Press, along with the rest of Da Book (pre-order now if you like). I found Apess as I was looking for Native soldier-dissenters, previously only represented in Ain’t Marchin’ by Simon Girty, a “White Indian” who deserted the Continental Army when he witnessed open genocide. Now, I find myself thinking Apess would address that May 20 hearing with the same answer given by that Native character on The West Wing, seeing no alternative than a return to the battlefield.

I can only hope that his story will be present that day, and that it helps cut the base out from under the foundational injustice.