A Change in History
By Fiona Poth '24
Beginning in 1492 with Christopher Columbus’s landing in the Bahamas, Europeans brought new diseases to the Americas. During the next one hundred and fifty years, the indigenous population of the Americas is estimated to have changed from nearly 60 million to 6 million. This dramatic loss of population was caused primarily by epidemics. The Europeans brought with them new diseases that the indigenous people did not have an immunity to or a treatment for. These diseases included smallpox, measles, influenza, and cholera. The Wampanoag tribe was one of the tribes that was seriously impacted by disease. Historians believe that the Wampanoag population in the New England area of the United States was nearly destroyed by a smallpox outbreak in the early 1600s. As a result, English Pilgrims settled on Wampanoag land when they arrived.
These diseases took many lives and destroyed cultures that had a reverence for nature. What might the United States look like today if these indigenous people had survived and thrived instead? This story explores that question. It is told from the perspective of 17-year-old modern-day Wampanoag girl who retells a story that she has heard many times about her ancestors. Storytelling is important to Wampanoags and many other indigenous tribes as a means of teaching important lessons and remembering tribal history. The disease modeled in this story is the black death. The spread of this disease has recently been attributed to human fleas and human lice and not necessarily to rats.
The driving away of the English pilgrims leads the area called the United States to become an Indigenous people’s nation instead. The population is primarily indigenous people. The government is socialist in structure. It was modeled this way because of the importance most indigenous people placed on the tribe or the group instead of on self. The resulting country is a large agricultural exporter to the world, uses renewable energy sources, and is a champion of public transportation. The biodiversity and the environment of this nation are much healthier than those of the rest of the world. Unfortunately, the rest of the world does not adopt these practices and still faces the issue of climate change, but the world does have the opportunity to learn from the indigenous people in this new world and to adopt their ideas and ways. Their voice has not yet been silenced as it has in today’s world. Several recent studies have shown that indigenous people were more effective stewards of the land than governments or international regulations. Their lands usually have better water quality and more biodiversity. One hopes that the world will begin to listen to what these indigenous people have to teach and will learn to be more respectful of the Earth’s resources.
Cowámmaus (You are loving)
As I stand with a basket of fresh corn from the harvest, gazing out onto the endless rows of maize basking under the warm, golden sun, it reminds me of all my ancestors who came before me and my connection to them, especially my great-great-great-great grandmother Alaqua.
The Earth and its bounty nourish us and link us together through time. It satisfies our hunger and thirst and cures our diseases. Although Alaqua and I have lived hundreds of years apart, we have experienced the same seasons. We have both seen the small daisies opening their white faces, the giant buffalo feasting on long, tall grass, and wild Appaloosas galloping in spring with their manes flying in the wind. My ancestors and I are a part of the Wampanoag tribe. We are the people of the first light.
During Alaqua’s time four hundred years ago, there were about 40,000 people in our tribe, and they made up 67 villages along the east coast. Today, in 2023, there are about 500,000 people in our tribe. We call our land Turtle Island. It is said that a turtle holds us and the world on its back. We have lived here in peace for hundreds of years. It is our home.
Although many years have passed, we still live in many ways like our ancestors and honor our traditions. Like our ancestors, we eat a plentiful diet of lean meats, fresh fruits, and vegetables. And like our ancestors, we are great hunters, fishers, and farmers. We gather our food from the land, and the land nourishes us. Our farms have grown larger, and we share the surplus with the world.
We have many traditions. We have healing practices that include music and the use of herbs. My favorite tradition is storytelling. The elders use their words to captivate us and teach us important lessons. Storytelling reminds my people of the importance of understanding and learning from our past and our ancestors. Without our ancestors, our land would not be here. Without our ancestors, we would not have a home.
Mother Nature is a friend we all know well. She is at the center of our world and beliefs. She gives us many blessings. She understands our needs and wants; however, she must be respected and thanked. If we anger Mother Nature, she will make it known. She can ruin crops with chaotic storms and harsh winds. She can rip our bountiful harvests from our hands. She can also bring diseases. But Mother Nature is typically kind, and disease is not a frequent visitor to our villages. Alaqua lived during the time of the Black Death, the most dangerous plague known to our people.
Throughout my seventeen years of life, this story was told countless times; however, I never grew tired of hearing it. It showed my great-great-great-great grandmother’s perseverance and ingenuity, our people’s bravery, and how Mother Nature helped us save our land from the people we now describe as Europeans. I am not a storyteller, but I will do my best to share this story with you. Sit down and listen.
One day, many moons ago, when the weather was turning cool and days were growing shorter, a new sickness found its way into Alaqua’s village. She had lived through sixteen winters. As she was gathering pumpkins for the harvest, her friend, Dakota, ran up to her shouting, “Wuneekeesuq! Alaqua! Elder Assawetough is dying! Come quickly and say your goodbyes!”
Alaqua’s heart immediately sank. Elder Assawetough was one of the most prominent members of the village. Even today, he is still remembered and admired for his bravery and strength. But also, he was a great storyteller and the wisest and oldest of the tribe. However, what made Alaqua even more concerned was that he had been perfectly healthy yesterday. Before nightfall, she had seen him walking. When Alaqua reached the nush wetu, she saw Elder Assawetough lying in his bed. His body trembled like a dry leaf in the wind. His neck bulged like the croaking frog. His skin had turned moist and green like that of a salamander. He seemed confused like a yellow throat who has lost her way. Elder Assawetough had begun the journey to be with reunited with our ancestors.
Alaqua turned to Dakota beside her and asked, “Do the healers know what Elder Assawetough has?”
“No. He has felt hot and then cold. He cannot keep his food down and has had terrible pains,” Dakota replied with a concerned look on her face.
My great-great-great-great grandmother shared her friend’s concern. Who would this disease come after next? Would it take more lives? She walked out of the longhouse to get fresh air to clear her head. Disease was not a frequent or welcome visitor in our villages.
In the weeks and months that followed, the disease roamed the village like a hungry, wild bear in search of prey. It was like nothing our people had ever experienced before. It was ravenous, eating away at people’s energy and lives, one at a time. Even the Medicine Man was mystified. His remedies could not ease the suffering this disease caused, and his rituals could not stop its spread. More and more of our people died. The healthy men and women of the village worked endlessly gathering food, collecting water, caring for the ill, and burying the dead. The plague was indiscriminate, killing both young the old. Alaqua attended more burial ceremonies than she could count. She and her village had cried a river of tears for all the dead. Alaqua knew she had to act.
Alaqua knew that Mother Nature was angry. She could feel the tension in the air. At birth, Alaqua had been blessed with the gift of powerful senses. She had a closer relationship with Mother Nature than anyone else in the tribe. She was special. Alaqua could feel a storm coming by the way the air touched her skin. She could see the fish under the surface of the dark water. And she could smell the presence of a deer. She knew that there had to be clues to the illness, and she knew that if she listened, smelled, and looked carefully, she could find them and help save the tribe.
Soon, Alaqua noticed many tribe members scratching their heads and rubbing their skin. They complained of itchiness before becoming ill and dying. She kept her eyes wide open, and soon saw that there were small bugs now living in the village. They were so small that they could hardly be seen. They were like dark specks of dust with six legs like springs. These pests could not fly like the bee, but they were powerful jumpers like the frog.
After careful thought, Alaqua concluded that these bugs were spreading the illness through their bites. She knew that Mother Nature had brought suffering, but that Mother Nature also offered cures and helps. Her Great Grandmother had taught her that the large, green leaves of the butterbur plant would help with the itching and that the strong smell of mint and rosemary would torment these bugs. She went to the medicine man and explained what she knew. He listened because he knew and respected her relationship with Mother Nature. They spoke and realized the importance of daily bathing in the river and of washing clothes in hot water to stop the mysterious illness. Then, they met with Massasoit, the chief. He listened. He also knew of Alaqua’s gifts. He believed that she was right. So, Alaqua worked all night to create a soap with ground corn kernels adding mint and rosemary, and a tonic from the butterbur leaves for all the members to drink.
The next day, Massasoit summoned all the remaining healthy members of the tribe to a meeting. Massasoit explained that, for the illness to end and to make Mother Nature content again, every member of the tribe must wash their skin and hair with Alaqua’s soap each day. Massasoit instructed the men to create large fires and for each household to bring out their largest pots to boil water and to wash all of their clothing and blankets with this water. Each house was to be swept and cleaned daily. Each family was to wash in the river daily. Clothes were to be washed every third moon. These new rituals helped ease the spread of this venomous plague, and it retreated into its den. After months of chaos and worry, this illness which we now call the Black Death took fewer lives, and new lives were born into the village. The village was healing because of Alaqua’s wisdom and respect for Mother Nature. And this is why we still wash and clean each day. Mother Nature wanted us to. Soon, however, too soon, more chaos and suffering would come to Alaqua’s village.
The Black Death had left, and many moons had passed. It was time to harvest the pumpkins again. Alaqua was again in the fields with Dakota when a loud sound startled Alaqua.
“Dakota, What was that?” Alaqua asked her friend in the next row over.
“I’m not sure,” Dakota said, still focused on her work.
Curiosity ate away at her. She left her work. She ran to the top of the hill and peeked around the tall oak tree to see a peculiar sight: men with ghastly pale faces walked in strange clothing. They had on tall hats with ruffled feathers and short pieces of fabric which ran down their legs. They were speaking a language that sounded foreign with a tone Alaqua had never heard before. They carried huge pieces of wood to set up in a straight arrangement that looked like a nush wetu but narrower and taller. They carried hunks of heavy material that they pointed toward the sky, which made loud, cracking noises. “Why are they invading our land?” Alaqua thought. She ran back to the village to spread the news of the strange people she had seen.
Soon enough, the Wampanoag tribe explored the new settlement, keeping themselves hidden in the forest. Some of the bold leaders ventured closer. They could not communicate, but they offered some of the harvest for the settlers’ table. They taught these new settlers about their surroundings. They taught them how to grow different crops to feed their people. They taught them which plants in the forest were safe to eat and what animals to hunt. However, this kindness was not returned. The foreign people never treated the members of our tribe with respect. These newcomers looked down on our tribe, as if we were inferior because of our traditions, how we looked, and the way we lived.
But the newcomers were not one with nature as we were. They were the ones who were inferior. They did not have a relationship with Mother Nature. Often, they worked against nature and were lost when my ancestors explained how nature worked. Or they ignored my ancestors’ advice. They cut down more trees than they could use. They would hunt an animal and not use all its parts. They would waste it. They thought Mother Nature would simply replenish the supply of trees or animals for them. They put their faith in their tools. They thought they were smarter than Mother Nature. No one is smarter than Mother Nature. They strutted around like peacocks and were as confident as the mountain lions. These traits would be their downfall. Remember to be humble and respect Mother Nature and her beautiful Earth.
Soon, the newcomers fell sick. It was the same illness we had seen months before. It was just as powerful and began killing the newcomers one by one. There were not many newcomers, only about 1,000 people in total. We tried to help them by offering to wash their clothes. We encouraged them to bathe every day in the river. We gave them Alaqua’s soap to wash and the tonic to drink; however, they refused. They declared our methods poison and sorcery. They said that their white undergarments and their masks would protect them. The mysterious illness spread like wildfire through their settlement, killing hundreds of them. Now, with fewer than one hundred people, they retreated to their large mishoon and sailed away across the blue horizon. The white newcomers were never seen again.
Mother Nature had sent the tiny jumping bugs to teach us a lesson in how to live. And we learned. These small creatures also proved to be mighty warriors. They had successfully defended our land from invasion. So, remember that the creatures who were your enemies yesterday may become allies tomorrow.
Reflecting on this story makes me realize how grateful I am for the land that Mother Nature allows us to occupy. Nearly, four hundred years later, our village is bigger. Our houses have modernized. Our farms have expanded. But our relationship with Mother Nature has not changed. We have developed technology to work with nature. We use solar panels and windmills to generate power for our homes and processing plants. We collect rainwater and store it for later use. We have an intricate public transportation system that allows us to travel from one side of our country to the other.
Today, the Wampanoag people live on a great expanse of land from the Eastern Eau to the great Western Eau. Our country is called the Unified Tribes of Ohio, or the UTO, which means Unified Tribes of Peace. It is made up of four separate tribal nations. Our nation borders the Eastern Eau. Our shared currency is the Wampum, which is the most famous and respected currency throughout the world. Even the foreign people from another land as described in the story, which is now called Europe, respect and honor our currency. We have one of the most powerful economies in the world. We were able to harness Mother Nature’s power to become the most successful exporter of food to the world.
Our government system looks much different from that of the rest of the world. Our country is run by what Europeans would call a socialist society. Our tribe is the center of our life. No one in the tribe can own land outside the tribe. Some people may call this type of living strange, but our tribe and country are thriving. All our people are treated equally. All our people have enough food. All our people have an opportunity to be educated. All our people have access to medical care. Our elders are listened to and respected.
The rest of the world does not understand how important Mother Nature is, and now Mother Nature is teaching them a lesson. In the rest of the world, the numbers of homeless are increasing because of the broken economy. Many people do not have enough to eat. Many people are denied an education because of their gender or race. Finally, temperatures are rising, and the weather is changing. The rest of the world has abused Mother Nature. Again, we are ready to teach the world how to interact with and respect Mother Nature if they are ready to listen.