Climate change, colonization and community organization

“The first Saturday of the pow wow each year, we will have a game,” said Nelson Andrews Jr., a tribal citizen and emergency management director, as he pointed to a field where the Wampanoag Tribe of Mashpee holds its annual pow wow. “So you take a soccer ball shaped out of chicken wire and it’s soaked in kerosene for months leading up to the event, light it on fire, and sprinkle some tobacco on it for a prayer.”  

The game, estimated to date back thousands of years, is called Fireball. Once lit, tribal members toss the ball around like a hot potato, burning themselves with each catch. The burns are in remembrance of those who have passed away. But the field where Fireball has been played for millennia sits on land that is in danger of being flooded by coastal waters.

This year, members of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, also known as the People of the First Light, are anxious about what the future holds for their sacred tradition. That’s because they are at risk for displacement and a disrupted livelihood due to coastal flooding. 

Nelson Andrews Jr. points to the Mashpee Wampanoag Community and Culture Center. There is a road that runs parallel to the community center, behind that road is a body of water. If a natural disaster or flooding were to occur, all of the land you see in the picture, especially to the left and right ride of the community center, would be at risk of flooding. The left side is where the pow wow takes place. Photo by Kayla Hui for Toward Freedom, February 18, 2020.

“If it wasn’t raining now, I would take the drone up and show you how close we are to the water, it’s right there,” said Andrews as we walked along the edge of the field along the coast in February. “During a high flooding event, all of this is going to be underwater.”

By 2050, sea levels are projected to rise 1.5 to 3 feet, according to a 2016 report by the U.S. Department of Interior. Coastal erosion and flooding will make the land uninhabitable, displacing current and future generations of tribal members. 

 “It’s not a loss of just a home that’s been part of our community from before the revolutionary war, it leads to this creation of climate refugees,” Andrews said. 2,600 tribal citizens are at risk. “Many of those families are no longer able to stay in the community.”

While present-day displacement is a result of climate change, Dr. Cedric Woods, Director of the Institute of New England Native American studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston, says colonization continues to contribute to the tribal nation’s vulnerabilities. 

According to Woods, who is a member of the Lumbee tribe, Native communities were pushed out to low-lying areas starting in the 17th and 18th century. Spanish and English colonizers pushed out Native communities because of their desire for arable land. Low-lying areas were commonly referred to as waste areas by English, French and Spanish colonizers. As a result of residing in many of those areas, today Native communities are especially vulnerable to sea-level rise and increased flooding. 

Woods said that displacement is particularly detrimental to tribal nations because, unlike settlers in the Americas or other parts of the world, “a lot of our belief systems are place-based – they are tied to particular places.” Woods pauses, then asks: “So what happens when those places are destroyed, or we can no longer access them?” 

The livelihoods of Mashpee Wampanoag tribal members have also been affected by the declining shellfish population.  Many rely on reselling shellfish in order to make a living. “We are a fishing community and as a result of lack of shellfish, it’s hard for the fishermen that are a part of our tribe to make a living as they used to,” Andrews said.

Shellfish populations are declining because climate change is changing the chemistry of the seawater causing ocean acidification, which is a chemical process that lowers the amount of calcium marine life can access. Without calcium, shellfish are unable to build and repair their shells.

The shellfish decline has increased the economic burden on tribal fishers in Massachusetts, where the shellfish industry creates thousands of jobs and generates more than $388 million in revenue each year. 

Prior to serving as the emergency management director, Andrews worked for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. After he noticed that his tribe did not have an emergency preparedness program, he left his job with the federal government to build the tribe’s emergency management department. In 2019, Andrews applied for a Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness Grant that would allow the tribe to plan for climate resilience, hire more staff, and buy equipment such as emergency backpacks, sleeping bags, and tents. 

However, grants like the Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness are economically unsustainable because they are not recurring. Additionally, the lack of funding makes it difficult for tribes to prepare for emergency management. 

Danielle Hill, a Mashpee Wampanoag tribal member and co-owner of the newly opened Wampanoag Trading Post and Gallery, says that the tribe is not getting the funds it deserves and should have the power to make decisions about their land and its governance. “No, I don’t think the federal government is doing enough. They’re trying to diminish our power by not allocating us money or giving us the resources to build our tribal governments as they should be,” said Hill. “Instead, it keeps us dependent on their funds. It keeps us powerless.”

Andrews states that of the $17 million allocated to states for homeland security every single day, tribes get less than half of that over an entire year. “If we had the funding, we could preserve our homelands. We could fight to keep what is ours,” said Andrews. One of his goals is to fight for direct funding for not only for the Mashpee Wampanoag, but for all 574 federally recognized tribes in the United States. 

While funding is important to protecting Indigenous land, Hill believes that tribal decision making and agency are equally important in maintaining sovereignty. “Tribal people have suggestions, and a completely different perspective on how to fix some of these issues, but do we have the capacity or money to do it ourselves?” Hill asks. “If it were up to me, Nelson [Andrews’] department should be huge. We should be allocated a massive budget to take care of the natural resources or the emergency management plan of the tribe,” said Hill. 

In 2015, the land of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe was placed in trust by the Department of Interior resulting in a declaration of 150 acres of land in Mashpee and 170 acres in Taunton as the Tribe’s initial and sovereign reservation. Placing a land in trust is a process whereby the secretary of the Department of Interior acquires the title and property of Native land and holds it for the benefit of tribal communities. However, in 2016, residents of the city of Taunton, Massachusetts sued and challenged the Department of Interior’s decision.

On September 7, 2018, the Department of Interior issued a Carcieri decision, a determination  named after the Carcieri v. Salazar Supreme Court case which ruled that tribes were required to demonstrate that they were federally recognized when the Indian Reorganization Act was enacted in 1934 to qualify for their land to be put into trust.

Because the Wampanoag tribe became federally recognized in 2007, the Department of Interior’s decision resulted in the denial of status of the Wampanoag Tribe, allowing the reservation to be taken out of trust and putting the Mashpee Wampanoag at risk of expropriation and encroachment. Insufficient emergency management funding and bureaucratic hurdles in a context of settler resistance and rising sea levels, means protecting Mashpee Wampanoag lands and traditions is an arduous battle. 

The land was federally recognized in 2007 and has been used to maintain tribal traditions for millennia. Its preservation is sacred to the Wampanoag Tribe. However, maintaining the land extends beyond saving tribal traditions. For Hill, saving the land is about preserving tribal identity and spirituality. “Our primary belief is that the human being is connected and attached spiritually to the earth,” she said as we spoke in person. “Many of our traditions and our spiritual practices maintain harmony and protection of the natural world.” 

Protecting the land is also about cultural inheritance. Part of Andrews role in emergency management is ensuring that the land is habitable for future generations of tribal members. “You’re preparing for the next seven generations,” Andrews said. “We’re always looking toward the future and for our children and their children and how they will sustain.” 

Currently, the tribe is battling COVID-19 with 13 confirmed cases as of July 19, 2020. The tribe declared a state of emergency on March 18. Andrews is leading the tribe’s COVID-19 initiatives which include developing a reopening plan and securing funding for sanitation and testing supplies, facial recognition technology, and hotel rooms to help tribal members self-isolate.

As the threat of coastal flooding looms, and the coronavirus pandemic impacts community health and autonomy, the future of the tribe’s land and the Fireball tradition remain uncertain. The only certainty is that Andrews and the Mashpee Wampanoag will be there to continue the fight.

Author Bio:

Kayla Hui is a New York-based freelance photojournalist and Pulitzer Center Fellow on Crisis Reporting. You can follow her work on Twitter at @kaylanhui.