"Moses made pilgrimages to the mountain, and Jesus spent forty days in the desert. All throughout history, people have made sacred journeys."
- don Jose Matsuwa
Day 0 - Thursday, November 24, 1994 - Before the Sun ascended on this piercingly cold Thanksgiving Day, an ominous wind raked across the hills and valleys of Massachusetts. The wind spiked out over Orleans and Eastham and into the broad reach of Cape Cod Bay, frothing blackened waters into angry, spitting caps. In the last few moments of the weakly illumined night, tar-dark clouds roiled and raced over all. A great, bitter wind was upon the land and the sea. Still, people came.
Beaten by icy needles from the unrelenting gale, forty of us broke from our cars and embarked on a wild, scattered search for a place among the dunes offering sanctuary from the wind. Having arrived to light a sacred fire at First Encounter Beach, we pilgrims needed help. We soon found a low place, marked by a wispy picket of marsh grasses. We gathered driftwood and piled it shoulder high in a tipi, then held up blankets and huddled close around Tom Dostou, sheltering him as knelt to strike a match.
The wind raged, the blankets fluttered, and the spark he struck struggled against the screaming elements. Finally the fire came: big, strong, wild.
Under the guidance of William Commanda, an Algonquin elder we all knew as Grandfather, our group -- representing all the world's races and many of its spiritual traditions -- formed a circle and prepared for ceremony. We had come to help open more clearly the Eastern Door, a principal spiritual gateway for our Turtle Island (North America). Our intention was to focus our energy in support of a planned prayer walk of some 3,700 miles to the Western Gate at the Pacific Ocean. Our pilgrimage would start from this same sandy hollow in seven months.
Before looking forward to our planned prayer walk, we paused to honor what had already happened here, on this beach, more than three centuries ago.
First Encounter Beach lies inside the wide crook of the elbow formed by the flexed-arm form of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. When Henry David Thoreau walked these shores in the 1850s, he observed, "everything told of the sea." So it does: the sand, the grass, the sky, even the bark patterns on the scrub pines.
|Satellite image of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. First Encounter Beach lies to the inner, bay side of the cape, just above where the elbow bends up. Noepe (Martha's Vineyard) is the large island below the cape. The fish-head shaped island to the right is Nantucket.
In the pivotal year of 1620, this place is where the band of human beings who came to be known as the Pilgrims had their initial contact with the Native people. First contact was here -- not at Plymouth, Massachusetts as is widely thought. On these sands a group of native men from the Nauset band engaged a group of strangers that they saw as thieves, grave robbers, and possibly slave traders.
While the meeting that day was the first between the Nausets and the Pilgrims, it was not by any means the natives' first encounter with Europeans. Before the Pilgrims arrived, Algonquin peoples of coastal New England had already experienced a century of cultural exchange with Europeans. Most of those meetings had been friendly, and had led to trade: furs and fish for knives and pots, and so forth. In time though, some meetings turned ugly.
Just six years before the Pilgrims arrived, in 1614 English Captain John Smith had explored the Wabanaki coastline with 45 men in two vessels. They sailed from the Penobscot River in Maine south to Cape Cod. Along the way they met many Algonquin Bands: Topeen, Seccasaw, Accomack, Chawmun, Massachusett, Nahant, Cohasset, Patuxet, Pocapawmet, Wampanoag, and eventually the Nauset as well.
These human beings all spoke dialects of the Algonquin language. They knew themselves to be Wabanaki — People of the Morning Light. On Turtle Island (North America), the Sun rose each day first over the places where the Wabanaki lived on the northeast coast. It was their ancestral responsibility to greet the day with prayer and appreciation, so the light of the Sun might pass to the west in a respected manner.
According to the late John Peters (Slow Turtle), longtime executive director of the Massachusetts Commission on Indian Affairs. Hundreds of European ships had traversed the New England coast beginning in the late 1500s, bringing diseases against which the natives had no resistance.
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|Mayflower II - A replica of the Pilgrim's ship, anchored at Plymouth, Massachusetts. (Photo by RJcox, courtesy of flckr.com)
By the time the Pilgrims set out from England aboard the Mayflower in 1620, a century of plagues, slavery abductions, beatings, and other abuses had seeded mistrust of the newcomers among native peoples.
Thus, on a cold and windy afternoon in November, 1620 when the Pilgrims anchored in the broad, flat reach of Paomet (Cape Cod Bay), their arrival alarmed the Nauset people who called the bay their home.
The Pilgrims had actually set out trying to reach Jamestown, Virginia, but gone wildly off course and run low on supplies. They were probing for food and shelter. The Nauset, shielded behind trees and grasses, watched carefully. Whenever the Pilgrims spotted the natives, they landed and pursued them. But the Nauset were fleet and knew the terrain.
Tension built. Eventually, the game of cat and mouse between the Pilgrims and the Nauset wound its way down to a flat, sandy stretch of shore along a shallow part of the bay, known today as First Encounter Beach.
As the Englishmen landed and came ashore, the natives observed the leader: a short stocky man with flaming red hair, a ruddy, pudgy face, and an explosive temper. In time the Indians could come to call him Captain Shrimp. But this day he was just a suspicious stranger. His name was Myles Standish.
Captain Standish and his men spotted something interesting just inland from the bay, and they began to dig. The digging caused them to unearth two gravesites, thus committing one of the very first of an as-yet unending chain of Native American grave desecrations. As the Pilgrims explored further they eventually unearthed and appropriated several bushels of corn from storage pits established by the Nauset for their winter survival.
The Sagamore (respected elder) of the Nauset people was named Aspinet. Because of his people's past experience, because of the apparently hostile actions of Myles Standish and the Mayflower men, and because that was food the people of his village had stored for the fast-approaching winter, Aspinet determined to strike. He may have felt it was strategically crucial to act at this point, before the invaders discovered his people's main village.
The Pilgrims started back to their boat with the corn they had unearthed. At that moment Aspinet signaled. The Nausets loosed a barrage of arrows toward the Pilgrims. The arrows fell harmlessly in the sand. Captain Standish quickly ordered his men to return fire, and they blasted back at the Nauset with their blunderbusses -- muskets with comically flared muzzles that are deadly in close quarters, and altogether impotent at a distance. Thus, the Pilgrim's return fire also missed.
In response to the maddening thunder erupting from the blunderbuss barrels, the Nauset men pulled back. The Pilgrims pursued them for about a quarter of a mile until they reached the edge of scrubby, sheltering woods, then halted. While there were no casualties on either side that day, the first encounter had been a confusing, and troublesome affair for both Red and White.
The Pilgrims went on about their search for land they could take and hold, eventually arriving in Patuxet (Plymouth, Massachusetts). The Nauset returned to guard their village not far from First Encounter Beach.
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In the last few moments before sunrise on Thanksgiving Day, 1994, we recalled the story of this first encounter. We huddled in blankets about the wildly blowing fire, listened, and observed the mighty clouds overhead.
Everyone shivered, even those protected with multiple layers of wool and down. Everyone shivered except Jose Lucero of the Santa Clara Pueblo in New Mexico. He is of the Wind Clan.
Before our prayers were spoken and sung, while the fire wobbled and whipped in the icy gales of wind, Jose casually took off his jacket. Within our circle of human beings Jose walked the sands around the fire. He wore only a guayabera, a gleaming white dress shirt. Looking relaxed and comfortable, tan and smiling, Jose strolled, closed his eyes, and offered up his medicine. The gale eased. The fire steadied. The ceremony began.
A sacred song was sung. Pipes were filled and lit. Grandfather Commanda prayed in the Algonquin language. Tom Dostou spoke some good words, then called on four people to speak some more: one person to represent each of the Four Directions, the Four Sacred Colors. We heard in succession the spontaneous spiritual sentiments of people representing the red, black, yellow, and white nations of the human beings.
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Eventually a tall bearded white man spoke. He looked deliberately around the circle, and fixed his gaze on a native man with a feather in his hair, Dennis Gonsalves of the Wampanoag Nation. The white man briefly acknowledged the story of the first encounter, then apologized. He offered a token of reconciliation: a bag of white corn kernels. He said it was symbolic restitution for the corn that had been stolen on this beach in 1620.
After shaking hands with him, Dennis Gonsalves, a tribal administrator for the Aquinnah Band of Wampanoag Indians, accepted the corn. When I asked him about it years later, Dennis told me: "That Thanksgiving in 1994 was a very special time in my life. It was the first that I experienced my people being seen for who they are, and saw my heritage as a Native American being positively recognized. Throughout my life my experience had been that the Native American heritage was either not recognized at all, or was judged negatively. For me, personally, that morning was the first time I could feel really good about it.
"It was so incredibly emotionally touching to be the recipient of the corn,” Dennis said. “I had gone that morning only as a participant. But I ended up being the representative for the Wampanoag people on that day. I remember that as the man was handing the corn to me, he said that the first White men to come here would not have been able to survive if they had not been taught by the Wampanoag how to grow corn. That meant a lot to me, knowing that the initial hospitality of the Wampanoag was being acknowledged and appreciated. I still have the corn. I am keeping it in a safe place."
"Later I told some Wampanoag people out on Noepe (Martha's Vineyard) about the ceremony, and some of them were glad to hear about what happened," Dennis said. "But for most people in America, even for many of the Wampanoag people, the whole story is still focused on Plymouth. Not many people know what happened at First Encounter Beach. There is a big gap in historical knowledge of what happened.".
When our ceremony ended we hurried back to the shelter of our vehicles, then traveled 15 miles to the home of Tom Dostou and Naoko Haga in Harwich, Massachusetts. A river of coffee awaited us to wash down a smorgasbord of doughnuts, pies, sweet rolls, and turkey.
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After feasting, Grandfather Commanda sat down by the fireplace in Tom and Naoko's cavernous living room. The space was flooded with late-morning sunlight, a good place to talk about our planned walk.
Leaning forward, Grandfather spread a prayer cloth on the carpet and then set upon it three elegant Wampum Belts that were entrusted to him over forty years ago: the Seven Fires Belt, the Jay Treaty Belt, and the 1701 Montreal Treaty Belt.
|Wampum Belt - not one of Grandfather Commanda's belts, but representative of the style.
The belts are about four-inches wide, and perhaps three-feet long. They are handsomely fashioned of beads made from wampum, the purple and cream-colored shell of the quahog clam. The natural beads are strung together with sinew, and as a pattern serve to record important events and agreements.
An elder who reads the wampum does more than faithfully remember what the symbols woven into the belt represent. He or she also communes with the spirit of the wampum. Each bead bears its own particular prayer vibration, the quahogs being among the Earth’s oldest creatures and suited to the spiritual task of remembrance.
Together the linked wampum beads and their pattern form a coherent field of meaning that is alive in time and carries authority. Wampums serve not only as records of the past, but also as reflections of the present and the future. For traditional peoples, wampums may serve as a link to The Great Holy, a natural expression of the ancient spiritual traditions of Turtle Island.
"I don't own these belts," Grandfather Commanda explained to the 30 or so of us crowded into Tom and Naoko's living room with him. "I just keep them for the people."
With the support of his helper Frank Decontie, Grandfather told the story of the oldest belt - that of the Seven Fires. When he reached the part where the seventh prophet speaks about the Seventh Fire, Grandfather explained that "a new people" would arise during a time of great troubles. These new people would have a responsibility and an opportunity to retrace the footsteps of the ancestors to find the sacred ways that had been left behind long ago.
According to the teachings, at that time people would be given a choice. If they choose the right road, Grandfather said, then the Seventh Fire would light an Eighth Fire: an eternal fire of peace, love, and brotherhood.
But if the people were to make the wrong choice of road -- the road of greed, materialism, and fear -- then the destruction which they brought with them on coming to this great Turtle Island would come back to them, causing suffering and death.
As he finished telling the story, Grandfather became resolute. "It is time to walk," he said. "It is time to retrace the steps of the ancestors and to find what was left by the side of the trail. It is time to walk now."
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Pueblo elder Jose Lucero added considerations. He said we must remember that this is a spiritual walk: "no performers, no sideshows, no college credits or marketing schemes to exploit the spiritual foundation upon which this walk will take place. Keep it simple."
Later Tom Dostou (Nabesse Pishum) huddled with one person after another, making plans for the long cross-continent walk that would start in June, 1995 -- just seven months away. A short stocky man with grey hair, and a ruddy, pudgy face,Tom was to take the lead as headman. He had been afire with the idea of a long walk since the Cry of the Earth Conference in New York.
With his wife Naoko, Tom was impressed with the vision of the Whirling Rainbow. When this natural phenomenon occurs, a full 360-degree rainbow circle appears in a wide ring around the Sun. Tom and Naoko spoke of it as the Sunbow, and added the number 5 to it to signify five colors of human beings: Red, White, Black, Yellow, and Brown.
Watercolor by Christie Cummings, 2006
The long walk, Tom declared, would officially be called the Sunbow 5 Walk for the Earth.
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When seven months had elapsed, we had laid the groundwork. Tom and Naoko had driven across Turtle Island, mapping the route to the Pacific. They made hundreds of phone calls and sent dozens of faxes looking for support. They established the Sunbow 5 Foundation as a legal vehicle for tax-exempt donations to support the walk. They recruited me to serve on the board of directors for the Sunbow 5 Foundation, and also as the office-based coordinator of the walk.
We defined the purpose of our walk. We established a Sunbow 5 web site. A handful of walkers came forward and made spiritual pledges to walk the whole way. We rounded up support vehicles. We disseminated a map and an itinerary. John and Julie Heyman, and Naoko, all members of the board, granted substantial sums of money to the Sunbow 5 bank account to help get the walk started, and to give it support over the months ahead. John Heyman also agreed to serve as Treasurer for the Sunbow 5 Foundation.
All was ready for our walk to begin. We watched for the moment when the Sun would reach a high point in the sky, just after Summer Solstice, 1995.