Telling the Native Story

Kerri Helme helps preserve Wampanoag culture at Plimoth Plantation and beyond.

By Lannan M. O'Brien
Portrait photography by Julia Cumes

Many people have heard the story of the English colonists’ journey to Plymouth in 1620 and their first interactions with the Wampanoag people. But too often, the portrayal of native history barely scratches the surface.

Known as “The People of the First Light,” the Wampanoag have called this region of Massachusetts home for more than 10,000 years, carrying with them an abundance of stories and cultural traditions. Kerri Helme, a New Bedford resident and member of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, believes it’s never too late to tell these truths. In fact, she does so every day as Plimoth Plantation’s Indigenous Cultural Programs Manager. 

“There are so many sides to our story,” says Helme, who is a key member of Plimoth Plantation’s Wampanoag Homesite, an outdoor “living history” exhibit situated along the Eel River. Museum visitors tour traditional wetus (Wampanoag homes) and learn from native people how their ancestors lived in the 17th century. For the past 50 years, says Helme, the exhibit has successfully represented a single family’s summer and fall encampment in that time period. But with her help, the museum is breathing new life into the homesite to better represent the diversity of Wampanoag culture. 

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“This is a great place to be able to show people that all cultures are different over time—our language can change over time, our artwork can change over time, our songs and dances have evolved to reflect the time that we live in,” says Helme.

In the past, visitors to the homesite would have entered a sandy clearing where there were several examples of seasonal homes. Native tour guides would explain how the area would have looked in the 17th century. Helme recently led an effort to restructure the homesite to more accurately represent how people would have lived throughout four seasons. With less time spent describing the basic layout of the homes, staff members have more time to share aspects of Wampanoag life, such as their songs, dances and oral history. In the future, the museum plans to offer a variety of children’s programming and an auditory experience as people enter the homesite. 

Helme’s role at Plimoth Plantation has also allowed her to pursue another passion: archaeology. Among several ongoing projects, she has been studying the Wampanucket Site, one of the earliest-known Wampanoag archaeological sites, where some of the tribe’s oldest artifacts have been found. “This site was continuously inhabited for 13,000 years,” says Helme. “This gives us an opportunity to talk about these old artifacts here [at the museum], and give people an idea of how long we really have been here.”

 

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Helme also took part in an archaeological dig in Plymouth led by Dr. David Landon, the Associate Director of the Andrew Fiske Memorial Center for Archaeological Research at UMASS Boston. 

While searching for evidence of the original palisade wall that surrounded the English settlement, the group located a mix of colonial and Wampanoag pottery at the sites of old English homes. The exhibition “History in a New Light: Illuminating the Archaeology of Historic Patuxet and Plymouth,” now open at Plimoth Plantation, showcases artifacts discovered at the site.

Helme wears many hats. But in a sense, each of her projects and studies—from archaeology to teaching traditional skills to immersing herself in Wôpanâak, the Wampanoag language—is dedicated to unearthing treasures of the past and sharing their beauty with the world, recovering and preserving the pieces of her tribe’s culture that, if ignored, could be forgotten.

“I feel grateful that my elders thought it was important to teach me [traditional skills] and I also understand how quickly these things can be lost in just one generation,” she says. “I think it’s incredible that we’ve been able to hold onto what we’ve held onto. How we make our baskets, our pottery, our recipes that we still make, the little language that never died… it’s important.”

In her spare time, Helme teaches native skills to people in her community and beyond, working with tribes all the way down to Chesapeake Bay to help revitalize their native cultures. She has even helped women from the Powhatan Indian Village at Jamestown Beach in Virginia. “They’re very closely related to [the Wampanoag tribe] language-wise, the way they were living and the materials they were using, their spirituality, and they lost a lot of that, so I’ve been helping them bring it back,” says Helme. 

Sometimes, while sharing native history at the homesite, Helme forms emotional connections with visitors—a non-native woman who feels guilt for her white ancestors’ treatment of tribe members, or a teenager who never celebrated her native heritage. “I’m the kind of person who will sit down with someone for four hours in the wetu, talking and crying,” she says. “I’ve had so many connections like that.” 

It’s in those moments that Helme unknowingly inspires others, who return years later to tell her how she touched their lives. And it is in those moments, too, that Helme brings Wampanoag history to life, enriching the “first encounter” tale with stories of her ancestors who were here many years before.

For more information about Plimoth Plantation, visit plimoth.org.

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