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Morris by the Roadside

By David Detmold

Attleboro Ma, Tuesday, 1:30 pm

I slept last night in a public park in Woonsocket, RI – departing Massachusetts just briefly to take the shortest route from Uxbridge to Dighton, where I hope to meet some Native friends before they close up shop at the flea market later this afternoon.

I slept under an oak tree, as much as the mosquitoes would allow, above a man made amphitheater that looked down over the Blackstone River. It reminded me of something out of ancient Greece, as the cars and trucks sped by all night on 122 and kept me wakeful.

I figured if I had gotten up to put up the tent, I would have drawn more attention from passing patrol cars. As it was, my ‘up and out by first light’ philosophy served me in good stead.

Also, putting up the tent would have involved unstrapping all the complicated web of bungee cords that is holding in place the two big boxes of yet to be distributed leaflets I am carrying on my bike about the flag and seal of Massachusetts. Thousands of fliers. Did I bring way too many? I often think so pedaling up a hill. They weigh dozens of pounds – and they are balanced precariously just on top of the tent, on the rack above my thin back tire.

Hope it holds up.

The weight of the boxes along with my ardor for the cause makes me want to hand out leaflets to everybody I see. Maybe even more. And this morning, after taking a wrong turn in the mist and somehow traveling north again on 121 into Wrentham, I saw a young African American man working in his front yard on the far side of the road.

The sun was hot already at 9:00 o’clock, and the traffic, like everywhere in southeastern Massachusetts, was intense.

It seems like everybody has to get in their car all by themselves and drive everywhere in a terrible hurry all the time on these graceful, curving, no shoulder, country roads – not the world’s best place for bicycle touring, believe me.

I waited, and finally made it across to the north side of the road, and pulled my bike up close to his garden fence, and handed the young man a leaflet from my front bag, saying, “May I give you a flier? It’s about the state flag of Massachusetts…”

Admittedly, not the best conversation starter…

But he acted like it was the most natural thing in the world for a strange white guy to ride his bike across heavy traffic and deliver him a leaflet about the Massachusetts state flag on a Tuesday morning.

He thanked me for stopping, and said he was not familiar with the history of our state flag and would read the information carefully.

He had a soft lilt in his voice, and a pleasant, open countenance, so I asked him where he was from. And he said, “The islands…”

“Which one?”

“The Bahamas,” he said. “By way of the midwest.”

And now he is here, putting down mulch in Wrentham.

I talked with him about the once legal practice for whaling captains to impress young Native boys, 12 or 14 years old, from coastal Wampanoag communities and bring them all around the world on whaling voyages, far from their homes and kin.

We talked about the slave trade that once brought Native Americans against their will throughout the Caribbean islands and the Bahamas. The Northeast sometimes gets off comparatively lightly in discussions of America’s slaveholding past. But in fact the New England region experienced a net outflow of slaves – importing fewer African American slaves than the South, certainly, but exporting Native Americans as slaves to the islands in large numbers, particularly in the years following Metacom’s (King Philip’s) War (generally recorded as 1675-1676, though that conflict lasted far longer on the northern frontier).

Our Puritan forebears kept Native slaves, certainly. But they soon found that Native slaves were likely to walk off the property and return to their home communities at the first opportunity, something African slaves had a harder time accomplishing. But Natives shipped off to the islands could be profitable commodities, and they would have much more difficulty returning to their people from those far away locales.

Christine deLucia, now teaching at Williams College, has a final chapter in her recent study of northeast Native history, Memory Lands, that deals with the Native community living today in the Bahamas, who are descended from Natives sold into slavery from this region hundreds of years ago. The Mashpee Wampanoag have long kept the heartbreaking lore of lost relatives living far across the ocean, and now efforts are ongoing to reunite people from the Cape and the coastal northeast with long sundered relatives in the Bahamas and elsewhere.

My new acquaintance on Route 121 in Wrentham told me that his name was Morris, and I gave him mine.

Then he asked me if there were any Native “settlements” in Massachusetts like there were out west.

I took out my map and showed him three: Grafton, where four acres of Hassanamisco Nipmuc land have never been alienated to white settler society – just four acres out of the huge region of Central Mass, northeastern Connecticut and Rhode Island they called home for thousands of years. Also Mashpee, where the Wampanoags still have a small portion of their former lands, and Aquinnah, on Martha’s Vineyard, the first town in Massachusetts to vote to return to its Native name.

I told Morris the Aquinnah Wampanoag would be holding a Powwow on the second weekend in September this year, a good time to meet people, see the dances, hear the songs, sample the fare.

For some reason, Morris looked part Native to me. And he gave me the feeling of someone trying to go home.

We parted as new friends. I told him I hoped to see him again soon, and I meant it.

Later, I stopped at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Attleboro, and gave a bundle of leaflets and extensive information about the effort to change the state flag and seal to the secretary, who promised to pass it all along to the head of their social concerns committee.

Maybe I will come out this way again soon and meet with that committee. The social concerns committee at the First UU Church in Brewster held one meeting back in January to discuss the state flag and seal, and that one meeting resulted in positive annual town meeting votes to change the flag and seal in Brewster, Orleans, Chatham and Dennis.

I’ll hold out hope for similar results in Attleboro.

And maybe that will give me a chance to look up Morris again, and see whether he made it out to Aquinnah for the Powwow. It’s always a good day when you meet new friends.

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