Joseph Lee

The Pageant

My earliest memories of the Pageant are of being embarrassed. The Pageant is an annual event my Tribe puts on for non-Tribal members where we dress up in traditional clothing and act out Wampanoag legends. As a kid it felt like a chore. I didn’t want to walk around in a leather breechcloth and nothing else. One year, my brother Sam and I were changing in the downstairs bathroom in the Tribal Building with some of the other kids. Maybe we could wear our underwear underneath the breechcloth, we thought. Mikey, our cousin, pointed out that our “tighty whities” might show up in the dark.

As kids, we didn’t have any regalia to wear. We just had to wear the rough breechcloths and moccasins that we had made for ourselves in Tribal camp. To sew the deerskin, we had to use leather needles, which were sharp on the sides too. This feature made it easier to puncture the thick leather but resulted in what felt like unavoidable tiny cuts on our hands. I remember feeling like a real Wampanoag from olden times who had sweated and bled to make essential clothing. By virtue of the blood I had shed to make my skimpy outfit, I felt I had earned it as much as if I had hunted the deer myself.

The Pageant’s full title is “The Legends of Moshup,” and tells a series of stories about our legendary leader Moshup. Moshup, a giant, created the island of Martha’s Vineyard by dragging his big toe through the sand as he led his people to a new home. As a kid, there were two special roles you could play in the pageant: Moshup’s pet frog and a crab that attacks him. Both roles had their downsides: the frog had to stay perfectly still after being turned to stone and the crab had to get tossed violently off the stage. But these roles had something no other role in the whole production had: you got to be fully covered. The Tribe had a costume for each. I remember that frog costume being something like a green pajama onesie. The crab costume was more elaborate and featured giant oven-mitt claws. While the frog had to sit still for the second half of the show, the crab got to leave after it was thrown off stage. Getting thrown actually sounded like it might be fun, but I was still a little scared. In any case, I never got a chance to play the crab. Sophia, another cousin, was always the frog, until she outgrew the costume. That year I finally got to play one of the animal roles I had always wanted to play.

Before, as just one of the general kids in the show, I never had any real responsibility. I just followed everyone around and copied motions. As a frog, after Moshup turned me to stone, I had to remain completely still in a crouched position for the rest of the performance. I thought I did a pretty good job, but afterwards my dad teased me, mimicking my fidgeting. One part of the Pageant story features Viking explorers who come to trade with the Wampanoag. Sam’s friends Patrick and Alex got to play Vikings when they were visiting us one summer. Often non-Tribal family members would play the Vikings if there were no handy white visitors. I wonder who the audience thought these white people were.

Most years, I just wore a breechcloth and moccasins. In Tribal camp, we made the moccasins every year as our feet grew. I used to want to wear a pair of moccasins to school—as much out of a desire to be different as anything. For some reason it never happened; moccasins belonged to the realm of summer. I don’t remember them being particularly comfortable and I was always jealous of fancier moccasins other people had. They looked more like real shoes instead of hastily pulled together deerskin. Some years I didn’t have my own moccasins and had to search through a bin of extras, which was like looking in your sock drawer for a match. So sometimes I went barefoot, which was good and bad. Bad because it was more uncovered area for mosquitos to attack, and repeatedly bending down to scratch an itchy foot wasn’t really part of the performance, and squelching through the mud and weeds on the way made me wonder about lurking snakes. Good because I felt more authentic, more in touch with nature, even from a young age. One summer I tried to train myself to walk barefoot everywhere, to develop thick callouses that could handle any terrain. I walked over thorns and gravel and anything else I could find. I learned I was OK with pain when I expected it, but the discomfort of stepping in rabbit poop or squashing a caterpillar was something I couldn’t steel myself for. The dark, muddy paths leading to the Pageant stage were filled with such surprises.

Throughout high school and college, I mostly avoided the Pageant—usually I was off-Island for soccer preseason or spending the summer in New York. One year I had an idea that we could make a brochure to pass around to Pageant attendees that would have a cast list that explained what each person does in real life. I felt it was important to remind audiences that modern Wampanoag life was not what they saw on stage. Mine could have said that I went to college in New York or that I loved bike racing. My mom said it was a great idea and I should make it happen. I didn’t go through with it because I didn’t want to challenge every one else in the Tribe or volunteer for extra work. I also worried that such a booklet played into more tropes—like the end of an uplifting movie where you get to hear that all the kids made it out of poverty and live successful lives now.

The summer before my senior year of college, I was traveling in Europe on a research grant from my school. Sometime in late July my mom sent me an email asking if I could be in the pageant—they needed a groom. Although the pageant tells a number of stories, the main scene revolves around a wedding. In other words, I would be the star of the show. I emailed her back saying I would really prefer not to but would do it if there was no one else. I knew it was a lost cause—I was going to be in the Pageant. Sure enough, when I arrived back on the Island, my mom told me I had to do it. And this would be my first year doing it without my mom or my brother—which made it feel even worse, but somehow very adult. Sam was off on tour, doing his musician thing, and my mom had to work. I would represent the family that year. The pageant is almost always hastily pulled together in the week or two before it takes place, which is always in early to mid-August. Normally everyone got organized enough to do a rehearsal the night or week before the show, but this year someone had somehow planned enough that we had a meeting and a rehearsal. Maybe it had always been like that and I just never went to the meetings when I was a kid.

At the meeting, I met two middle-aged men—Steve and his brother John. I later learned that Steve was on Tribal Council. I don’t think either of them had spent much time on the Island until that summer. Steve was pretty gung-ho about the Pageant, but his enthusiasm faded when he realized what he was going to have to wear. I gathered that Tobias, the Tribal Chairman, had encouraged them to participate in the Pageant and said he’d show them the ropes. As I laughed at Steve’s horror, he joked with me that Tobias had really thrown him under the bus by not warning him about the required apparel. I told Steve that it wasn’t too bad and I’d guide him through it all. He was hilariously grateful, repeatedly shaking my hand, high fiving me, or putting his arm around my shoulder and laughing at his plight.

Normally I felt no right to ask for any of the cool stuff that some people had: shell necklaces, leather leggings, fancy moccasins, or beaded vests. But this year, as the groom I felt I definitely needed to look my best. I couldn’t be just another Tribesperson wearing a simple breechcloth and moccasins. Tobias and a few other men supplied me with items from their personal regalia to complete my look. That night, preparing for the Pageant, someone I didn’t know asked if I’d help her young son with his first Pageant. I said of course and brought him downstairs to find some clothes that would work. He was bursting with excitement and I spent some time trying to calm him down. I knew the others were doing a quick run through on set. I wondered who filled in for me and hoped to spend enough time helping the kids to get out of my starring role.

At some point running around the Tribal building, I ran into a white man who had been coming into my parents’ store for years. He was in the building to use the bathroom before the show and asked to take a picture with me. I agreed, but felt uncomfortable. He’s a nice guy, but good intentions didn’t change the fact that I would be a cultural object on display in his photo. Being half-naked in my groom’s outfit didn’t help either. When I rejoined the main group they said they were worried I had run away but waited for me. A moment later, we began lining up outside. We always started the show at dusk right when it was getting dark—that way most of the show would be in complete darkness, except for the light from the fire and the one stage light pointed at the earthy stage. When we walked out, torches held high, someone would usually have a drum and sing a traditional song. There was also a fog machine, which added to the ethereal feeling of it all.

As the sky began to darken, we started lighting the torches. This was the first year that I got to carry a torch. My mom told me that when she did the Pageant she always wanted to be old enough to carry a torch, until she realized that only men carry the torches. The viewers sit up on the steep hill on picnic blankets. Beforehand, someone goes out and lights an army of citronella candles to make the evening somewhat bearable for them. In the end, my wedding was a success.

When the performance was over, we all gathered back in the Tribal building to change. The Chief’s sister announced that even though we know how the Chief is—never happy about anything—he was really happy with our performance that night.

At the quarterly Tribal meeting the next summer, she stood up to chastise everyone who pretended to care about Wampanoag culture but could be counted on to skip the Pageant every year. In the weeks leading up to the meeting, dozens of Tribal members had signed an anti-casino petition that mentioned protecting our Native culture. She’s right—it’s easy to sign something that says you care about preserving culture and much harder to actually preserve it. Most of the Tribe could do a much better job at doing the thing they supposedly care so much about, whatever it might be.

The link between the Pageant and the Tribe’s political actions is an important one. As much as I complain that the Pageant is a relic or a minstrel show, it has changed over the years and each edition is different. The stakes of our Native culture heightened in the debate over the casino, which gave the Pageant added meaning that year. I’m sure it won’t be the last time culture and politics come to a head in Aquinnah. Any cultural performance is political, but Native people dressing up in traditional deerskin clothing seems especially charged. For years, I said I hated the Pageant for being a Native minstrel show. Now, I’m not sure if that’s right. Many within the Tribe value the Pageant as an important piece of our cultural preservation efforts. But why do we have to perform the Pageant for tourists? Why can’t we make it something within the Tribe, something that teaches Tribal members about our culture?

Maybe I’m being hypocritical; I’m usually critical of the Tribe’s impulse to keep culture behind closed doors. Sometimes sharing culture promotes a better understanding of Native people and sometimes it resists that. Too often outward expressions of Native life are only events like the Pageant or powwows, which are important to many Native people and our cultures, but often reinforce the idea that many Americans have of Native people. Restricting access to cultural items or traditions also suggests that Native culture is inherently sacred and mysteriously mystical, which is what many Americans already believe. Native culture is sacred and should be respected, but no more than any other culture.

Last year, I was only home for two weeks all summer, but I happened to be there when the Pageant normally took place. I hoped no one would find out I was home and ask me to get married again. Then I was biking past the Tribe and saw a sign had been put up that the Pageant was cancelled. I never found out exactly why it was canceled, but whatever the reason, I was relieved.

As I get older and cousins around my age start to have kids, I’m interested in whether or not their kids participate in the Pageant. Will I make my kids do it? Maybe they’ll want to. Thinking about it now, I would want them to do the Pageant if only because it’s a good way to get together with other Tribal members. The Pageant is also an opportunity to engage with difficult topics like representation and colonial history. Whether its participants want it or not, each Pageant is a continuation of a conversation that has been taking place for hundreds of years.

 

 

Joseph V. Lee is a member of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah). He lives in New York.