Colrain honors Pequot Nation activist William Apess

  • Jim Peters expresses appreciation to the town of Colrain for its commemoration of William Apess on Friday outside the Griswold Memorial Library. Peters is a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe and has been executive director of the Massachusetts Commission on Indian Affairs for 20 years. FOR THE RECORDER/ELLA ADAMS

  • Elders of the Mashpee Wampanoag applaud event speakers at the inaugural William Apess Day in Colrain on Friday. From left are Jodie Keegan, Marleen Lopez and Gail Hendricks-Hill. FOR THE RECORDER/ELLA ADAMS

  • Rhonda Anderson speaks at Friday’s William Apess Day event in Colrain. Anderson is Western Massachusetts commissioner on Indian Affairs and founder and co-director of the Ohketeau Cultural Center and the Native Youth Empowerment Foundation. FOR THE RECORDER/ELLA ADAMS

  • Dr. Drew Lopenzina reads William Apess’ words and speaks about the concepts of hospitality and settler colonialism as they relate to Indigenous American history. Lopenzina, a speaker at the William Apess Day event on Friday n Colrain, is the author of Apess’ biography and a professor of English at Old Dominion University. FOR THE RECORDER/ELLA ADAMS

  • Mashpee Wampanoag elders sit with gifted plaques commemorating the inaugural William Apess Day in Colrain on Friday. From left are Jodie Keegan, Marleen Lopez, Gail Hendricks-Hill and Mother Bear. FOR THE RECORDER/ELLA ADAMS

  • Griswold Memorial Library Director Chelsea Jordan-Makely introduces the event being held to commemorate William Apess Day in Colrain on Friday. FOR THE RECORDER/ELLA ADAMS

  • Community members gather to celebrate the inaugural William Apess Day at the Griswold Memorial Library in Colrain on Friday. FOR THE RECORDER/ELLA ADAMS

  • Members and elders of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, which William Apess was adopted into, stand around the William Apess plaque in front of the Griswold Memorial Library on Friday. The plaque was installed in 2018. From left are Marleen Lopez, Jodie Keegan, Jim Peters, Gail Hendricks-Hill and Mother Bear. FOR THE RECORDER/ELLA ADAMS

  • Joe Kurland of the Colrain Selectboard reads the board’s official proclamation of William Apess Day on Friday. Kurland added, “It pleases me so much to live in a town that can have this kind of celebration and this kind of reconciliation with the people who were first here and remain among us.” FOR THE RECORDER/ELLA ADAMS

For the Recorder
Published: 5/23/2021 3:41:27 PM

COLRAIN — Community members gathered on the front lawn of the Griswold Memorial Library on Friday to celebrate the inaugural William Apess Day, and to share the little-known history of Apess, a Colrain native and activist from the Pequot Nation who spent most of his life fighting for Indigenous rights.

The date, May 21, marked the anniversary of the signing of the Mashpee Declaration of Independence in 1833. The document, which Apess co-wrote with Blind Joe Amos of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, asserted the rights of the Mashpee Wampanoags to land and self-governance, objecting to the encroachment of settler communities on their people and land.

To commemorate Apess’ contributions to the fight for Indigenous rights, the town of Colrain proclaimed May 21 William Apess Day. Friday’s celebration, organized by the West County Kindness Project, the Colrain Selectboard, Friends of Colrain and the Griswold Memorial Library, had numerous speakers.

Rhonda Anderson, Western Massachusetts commissioner on Indian Affairs, began the celebration by acknowledging the land on which the audience was a guest, the Wabanaki Confederacy territory and the watershed of the Kwinitekw, or Connecticut, River. Anderson, who is also founder and co-director of the Ohketeau Cultural Center and Native Youth Empowerment Foundation, was the first of eight speakers to explain what William Apess Day means to an American history that has so often left out Indigenous voices.

“It is important to remember that while Indigenous communities have lived, gathered, farmed, hunted and fished in the area for thousands of years, they are still here,” Anderson said. “I think about how often I used Apess’ words to punctuate how long Native people have been talking about who controls our identity and the misrepresentation of Indigenous people.”

Elected tribal leaders, she said, deserve equal respect as the elected leaders of Massachusetts, especially when they are hearing issues regarding Indigenous identity, rights and representation — similar issues to those Apess fought for nearly 200 years ago.

“I like to think that Apess would ask that we acknowledge the painful truth of our histories and move forward for all of humanity,” Anderson continued. “I am grateful for Apess and his unapologetic, scathingly brilliant beacon of truth regarding some of the darkest chapters in American history.”

Also at the event were several Mashpee Wampanoag elders, who agreed that the attention given to Apess was much deserved and “past time.” Jodie Keegan said it was an honor to be present for “the town’s effort to bring to life William Apess’ work.”

Likewise, Jim Peters, executive director of the Massachusetts Commission on Indian Affairs, also expressed his appreciation for Colrain’s recognition of Apess.

“It’s a place that we can point to and say, ‘Yes, they understood. They understood what we were going through,’” Peters, a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, said. ‘“And they honored that man who came to our town and helped us to pull our bootstraps up and continue on.’”

The official proclamation of William Apess Day was given by Colrain Selectboard member Joe Kurland. The proclamation expressed that the town of Colrain wishes to honor Apess’ legacy, as he “exhorted Americans to reconsider the long line of cultural productions that served to disenfranchise Native people across the continent.”

Following the proclamation, several professors spoke about Apess’ work, life and impact. While Apess was instrumental in the fight for Native American civil rights, a collection of his works was nonexistent before 1997, when Dr. Barry O’Connell of Amherst College became the first to collect and edit a book of Apess’ writing.

“From the very beginning, reading Apess’ work reminded me of who and what matters in American history,” O’Connell reflected.

Aside from Apess’ own work, his biography, “Through an Indian’s Looking-Glass: A Cultural Biography of William Apess, Pequot,” was written by Dr. Drew Lopenzina, associate professor of English at Old Dominion University. Lopenzina told a history of Apess’ trials and victories, beginning with his adoption into the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe and centered around the concept of hospitality as a belief and way of life in Indigenous culture and ritual.

“What is colonialism except the very opposite of hospitality?” asked Lopenzina, noting the stark contrast he sees between settler colonialism and Native Americans’ welcoming of those in need. Reading from Apess’ writing about the neglect faced by the Wampanoags, Lopenzina spoke of its correlation to American history.

“I think this is a history that we have neglected. Most of us don’t know, what was life like for Native people in Massachusetts in the 1830s?” he said, explaining that the presence on Friday was important for this very reason. Apess “spoke for the disenfranchised” and “effected change in the lives of Native people.”

An earlier version of this story contained an incorrect date regarding when the Mashpee Declaration of Independence was signed. The document was signed May 21, 1833. Likewise, William Apess Day in Colrain will now be celebrated on May 21.




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