The land Brandeis sits on was sacred to the indigenous peoples who lived on it, according to the Mattakeeset tribal Chief. The land was shared among the Massachusett people, which includes four contemporary surviving tribes: the Mattakeeset, Natick, Ponkapoag and Namasket.
Chief Sachem Wompimeequin Wampatuck of the Mattakeeset tribe first visited Brandeis on Indigenous People’s Day this year and spoke about Brandeis’ connection with the aboriginal peoples. In an interview with The Brandeis Hoot, he described the connection between Brandeis’ land and the Massachusett peoples.
“What I recognize coming here to Waltham, and especially on the Brandeis campus, is that this was absolutely one of our most sacred places. Whether it be a burial place or whether it be a place of worship, I won’t fully disclose. But I can absolutely tell you one thing: Brandeis is on a very sacred place for the Massachusett people.”
Tribes identify locations where their villages were based on rock formations and how the land is “built up.” Wompimeequin said he wouldn’t go into further detail to protect the sacred sites.
Wompimeequin described how, coming to Brandeis, he immediately recognized the shape of the land and felt a connection to it. “Walking through here, the other day when I came for the first time on campus, I recognized what I believed to be some very important rock formations,” he said. “Whether it be sachem seats, whether they be burial grounds of people who held very big significance within our tribes, those were things that stuck out to me as I walked on campus.”
Wompimeequin emphasized that he wanted to have other tribal members come to Brandeis to confirm his beliefs.
Wompimeequin explained that the land was originally shared by his ancestors with the other nomadic tribes. The four modern tribes have genealogically traced themselves back to the Massachusett people, which originally included between 60 and 80 tribes. The contemporary tribes can trace themselves as far back as the 1600s, according to Wompimeequin. They make up what he called the “Massachusett nation.”
The tribes occupied and shared the area of Waltham, including Brandeis, which they called “nonantum,” meaning “the place of the rejoiceful gathering.” Wompimeequin hopes to build a relationship with Brandeis to create a place for indigenous people to visit and be welcomed.
“It’s time for us to be a part of this place again, so that we can fully enjoy our opportunities to the spirituality that Brandeis holds, not just because it has an educational holdings for the students but also because it has a spiritual holding for the local indigenous people here,” he said.
Wompimeequin continued, “You know this for us is also home. And I think Brandeis has to play a very sensitive and culturally sensitive role in the understanding of what that actually means.”
As Chief Sachem, Wompimeequin represents the Mattakeesets to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and is the tribe’s ambassador to the U.N. But his role goes beyond representation. “What that means to be a sachem means not to dictate to my community what is best for them but to help them by empowering and inspiring them,” he said. “So my role is simply being a brother, it’s being a father, simply being an uncle, a mentor, a cousin, and a relative, and a leader but just one of the leaders amongst our leadership.”
Wompimeequin also spoke about his personal journey to finding his tribe after part of his family was assimilated and separated from the Mattakeeset. He grew up in several foster homes and only realized he was an indigenous person when he met his great-grandmother. Later, when Wompimeequin was a teenager, he met his uncle for the first time at a pow wow and was able to find the rest of his family.
He was able to find more of his family members and in 2014, resurrected the Mattakeeset tribe. The decision to resurrect the tribe was difficult: “We knew that there were going to be great obstacles in front of us, but also we understood that there was going to be emotional, historical traumatic obstacles that we would face,” Wompimeequin said.
After the tribe was resurrected, one of the challenges they faced was achieving state recognition. State recognized indigenous tribes receive certain benefits, according to Wompimeequin, but there is no clear criteria to petition for state recognition. He also spoke about a lack of transparency in the commission.
The Hoot contacted the commission and confirmed that there is no process in place. State legislation is required to create a formal process for tribes to gain state recognition.
Wompimeequin emphasized that he wanted to create a relationship with Brandeis centered around its social justice mission. He was hopeful that a dialogue with Brandeis, including possibly hosting a panel discussion with indigenous peoples or academic events about the history of indigenous peoples, could help educate students on the history of the Brandeis land and Waltham.