December 16, 2012

Wampanoag elder writes book about tribal life, troubles

Amelia Bingham, 89, details her childhood in a Mashpee, Mass., that no longer exists.


MASHPEE, Mass. - Amelia Bingham has spent most of her 89 years striving to learn more about her tribe, the Mashpee Wampanoag, and its culture.

In a self-published book, Bingham tells much about the subject, from her childhood in Mashpee to her misgivings about past and current tribal leaders.

"I thought it was time that we really put it out there, what the situation was in Mashpee, from the inside," Bingham said in a phone interview.

"Seaweed's Revelation: A Wampanoag Clan Mother in Contemporary America" needed to be told, she said.

The book's title is a nod to the Indian name, Seaweed, she was given as a small child, Bingham said.

Bingham, a tribal elder and a clan mother, was a central figure in pushing for an investigation into the political corruption and financial misdeeds of former tribal council Chairman Glenn Marshall in 2007. When she and three other tribe members filed suit seeking access to financial records, Marshall and the tribal council voted to shun her and the other members, which took away their rights to vote and participate in tribe activities.

"The thrill of our pending recognition was blunted, however, by continuing indications of trouble within our tribal leadership," Bingham wrote.

Though she worked in pursuit of federal recognition for the tribe and provided documentation that helped prove its claims, she was not allowed on tribal grounds when the tribe celebrated its freshly minted sovereignty in 2007.

Bingham remained defiant. She showed up at the annual powwow with other shunned members, leading tribal leaders to call the police.

She and her son Stephen continued to push investigators to dig deep into the tribe's finances. That finally happened after Marshall was forced to resign in August 2007 amid reports that he once had been convicted of rape and had lied about the extent of his military service. He eventually served time in federal prison.

As new leadership was elected, Bingham and the others were restored as active tribe members.

Bingham, however, has remained critical of the tribe's direction in the pursuit of casino riches and has pushed for the tribe to reclaim more of its land in Mashpee through an unsuccessful federal lawsuit.

In 2010, she was named one of Cape Cod Community College's pioneering women.

Though she already had written a book about the tribe, Bingham felt strongly that the myriad stories in this most recent work needed to be told. Those stories begin with Bingham's childhood in a very different Mashpee than the one Cape Codders now know.

"It has changed drastically," she said. Then, the town was considered a "reservation" where non-Wampanoag didn't usually venture, she said.

"There were misconceptions that if you were from Mashpee you were not educated, you had no desire to better your life or anything else," she said.

In the book, Bingham recalls life in her family's "bungalow" off Route 130. It "happened to be the location of the very last wigwam to stand in Mashpee," she wrote in her book.

A tribal elder "gathered the Native children together and taught us how to make simple regalia and dance various tribal dances. ... In those days, powwows were not open to the public; instead they were more like old-fashioned family reunions."

It was later in life, during her husband George "Dewey" Bingham's Army service, that Bingham's passion for her heritage really blossomed.

The Binghams and their children were stationed in various states and eventually in Germany in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

"Everywhere I went people wanted to know more about the Wampanoag homeland. ... I was treated royally everywhere I went, just like a big celebrity," she said. When she returned to Mashpee in 1965, "the first thing I wanted to do was research and find more about it," she said.

It's through that research that Bingham compiled hundreds of photos, of her family and other tribe members; maps of the old Mashpee; and documents, such as a copy of "The Lord's Prayer" in the native Wampanoag language, along with some of Bingham's own historical writings. Many of those artifacts are featured in the book.

Also included is some insight into Bingham's recent passion: scrutiny of the tribe's leadership and misgivings about a possible casino "that the tribe would never benefit from," she said.

"I'm still raising hell," she said. "But somebody has to do it."


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