Wampanoag Perspectives on the Plymouth/Pokanoket Agreement

Video, Oral Tradition
Nanepashemet (Assonet Wampanoag). 500 Nations Interviews conducted by Jack Leustig, Roberta Grossman, Lee Miller, and W. T. Morgan, with John M. D. Pohl.
500 Nations: Kevin Costner Explores America’s Indian Heritage (CBS)
Portrait of Nanepashemet


In the years before his death in 1995, Nanepashemet (Assonet Wampanoag), a groundbreaking historian and leader of Plimoth Patuxet Museums' Wampanoag Indigenous program, dedicated his career to the Native history of this region. His commitment to uncovering Indigenous presence in even well-known primary sources transformed Plimoth Patuxet and the field of public history. Today, the field's emphasis on inclusive, multivocal history owes much to Nanepashemet's alternative readings of colonial documentary sources. In this excerpt from an interview with the filmmakers behind 500 Nations (1995), Nanepashemet discussed what motivated the Pokanoket sachem, Ousamequin (Massasoit), to ally his community with the English colonists at Plymouth. Tobias Vanderhoop, former Tribal Chairman for the Wampanoag Tribe of Aquinnah agreed with Nanepashamet’s interpretation and in a 2014 interview with that:

The 1621 alliance with Plymouth] was not just political convenience – it was survival. If you do not have power backing you, and you are a weakened people, then the enemies that naturally exist around you will take advantage. And our leadership knew very well the tough decisions that needed to be made at the time in order to ensure that Wampanoag people continued to exist in Wampanoag territory.1

Nanepashamet’s interview is an example of oral tradition - a spoken practice still used by many cultures around the world, including the Wampanoag and other Native tribal nations - to pass historical and cultural information from generation to generation. According to traditional educator and artist, Ramona Peters (Mashpee Wampanoag):

Through oral tradition, we learn about history, the prophecies; it is used to describe agreements, to share teachings, to carry on those teachings. Is also (is) used for group prayer, and also through song. Now with each of these, some are recited in the exact same way that they originated. In other words: history should not be changed by a speak who is several generations away from the original event. In this case, the orator, the speaker, has been trained very carefully to repeat exactly the way the story was told in the beginning. In this way, each generation as far as it can go will hear the historic facts of an event that affected The People.2


Q: Was Massasoit a practical man?

Nanepashemet: When I was a kid, I used to wonder about Massasoit. One of the things I wondered was, ‘why would he welcome the English? Why would he be so kind to them?’... They [the Pokanoket] made it [the agreement], basically, because, why would they want to have two enemies? The Narragansetts, whom they could probably consider to be their biggest threat, or these gnat-like English people that kept coming around the country but never seemed to stay before?…Native logic would say, ‘well, you don’t bring your women where you’re going to make war, so let’s make peace with these people, use them as allies - they got their strange weapons. If we make peace with them first before anybody else does, then we’ll have them on our side and we won’t have to face their guns.’ To me, that’s the logic of it.

And Native People had not had colonization as part of their cultural experience. We did not go out trying to discover other lands and then take them over for our benefit, so the idea was not in our heads at that time…I can't see that Massasoit or any of the Native people in the 17th century would be able to conceive of thousands and thousands of people coming from across the sea to take over territory. It would not have been in their experience. There would not have been any elders to advise them…it hadn’t happened before. They expected people to be normal, and normal to us was entirely different from what normal was to English people…Europeans were not rational [to them]. They were unpredictable, they were dangerous. They were not normal. You had to somehow come to terms with them [the English people] because they were there. And it would be better to make an alliance with them first than to have somebody else do it and use them against you. So Massasoit went to Plymouth, negotiated the alliance with the English mainly because - and the Pilgrims were aware of this - that he felt that their guns, their firepower, would be a help to him against the Narragansett. Not necessarily aggressively, because I don’t think Massasoit had enough people to do any kind of a real aggressive movement, but at least defensively. And also engage in trade and reciprocity with the English, as one would normally do with an ally. Intermarry perhaps…but the English did not work that way.

[Transcript resumes at 4:12]

Massasoit, when he met the Pilgrims in March of 1621, had with him a retinue of sixty, armed men. In that colonial village there was [sic] about fifty men, women, and children. The Pokanoket contingent outnumbered the whole Colony, and if they [Pokanoket] had allies in other villages, they certainly could have mustered enough strength to wipe out Plymouth if they wanted to. And indeed, they would not have needed to. All they would have had to do is ignore them. And just prevent anybody from helping them out and that would have destroyed them...The Plymouth people were just simply lucky. They happened to stumble into the right place at the right time, and they did not even orchestrate the scenario. The Natives orchestrated the whole thing; it’s just that they had no knowledge of European thought process to be able to predict what the Europeans were going to do next.3, 4


Video provided courtesy of Ancient Lights Video

Discussion Questions

  • Why do historians think Ousamequin (Massasoit) decided to ally with the English colonists at Plymouth?
  • How does Nanepashemet describe the Pokanoket’s feelings about the English colonists? Did that change the way they interacted?
  • What makes Ousamequin a good leader?
  • How did Ousamequin’s previous understanding and experience with Europeans inform his decision to ally with Plymouth Colony?
  • Think about a time you had to work with someone you did not know well. How did you feel at the beginning? How did your feelings change? How would you describe the outcome?
  • Based on what everyone knew at the time, do you think the terms of the agreement benefited the Pokanoket? Why or why not? What about the English colonists?


  • 1 Tobias Vanderhoop, “Alliance with Massasoit’s People and the First Thanksgiving,” Interviews conducted by Leigh Howell, Robin Espinola, Ric Burns.interview for American Experience: The Pilgrims. (Steeplechase Films, 2014)
  • 2 Ramona Peters, “Oral Tradition and the Wampanoag,” by Plimoth Patuxet Museum staff. You Are The Historian: an Educator’s Guide to the 1621 harvest celebration (Plimoth Patuxet Museums, 2002) pg. 70
  • 3
  • 4 Nanepashemet“ “Interviews for Kevin Costner’s 500 Nations,” by Jack Leustig, Roberta Grossman, Lee Miller, and W. T. Morgan, with John M. D. Pohl.500 Nations: Kevin Costner Explores America’s Indian Heritage (1996)