“No new worlds.”
Those words are written 20 feet high on the port of Plymouth on the south west coast of England, from where the Mayflower set sail to give her passengers a new life in America.
The art installation is one of several commemorations for the 400th anniversary of the transatlantic trip on Wednesday.
The anniversary comes as the United States and many other countries face racism and some highlight the enormous and, for many, catastrophic effects of the famous ship passengers on the world they claim.
The artists behind the work want to question the longstanding mythology surrounding the Mayflower’s search for a “new world” by highlighting people who have lived in North America for millennia.
“It just feels extraordinary to me that 400 years later the state most of us find ourselves in is denying this story,” Léonie Hampton, one of the three artists behind the project, told NBC News. “That needs to change.”
The history of the Mayflower is well known. The Mayflower’s 102 passengers and approximately 30 crew members, who came from England and the Netherlands, sailed on September 16, 1620 and were generally portrayed as pilgrims seeking religious freedom, although their beliefs and motives were more complex.
After 66 days at sea, they landed on Cape Cod, near what is now Provincetown. The Wampanoag Native American tribe helped them survive their first winter – on the occasion of the first Thanksgiving Day.
More than 30 million people can trace their ancestors back to the passengers of the Mayflower, which contributes to its high place in American history.
But they weren’t the first European settlers to land in North America, and their interaction with the Wampanoag did not remain peaceful. In the decades that followed, waves of European disease killed many of the Native Americans, and mounting tensions led to bloody wars.
Many New England Indians now call Thanksgiving National Day of Mourning to reflect the enslavement, killing, and pillaging of their ancestors.
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“It’s important to get the story right. It’s important to understand that the truth matters, ”said Steven Peters, member of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe and creative director of the SmokeSyngals marketing company involved in the commemorations.
While the European settlers kept detailed documents about their interactions and activities, the Wampanoag did not have a written language to record their experiences, Peters said, resulting in a one-page historical record.
The Wampanoag had suffered a deadly plague in the years leading up to the Mayflower’s arrival that killed up to 100,000 people, Peters said, which may explain why they were pursuing alliances and support from the settlers.
A colonial perspective undermines not only Native American tragedies but also their contributions to history, argues David Stirrup, professor of American literature and Indigenous studies at the University of Kent.
“Some of the people who helped the pilgrims survive this first winter have already been to Europe. Some of them were fluent in English. They were not unknown peoples waiting for European contact.
“The indigenous people played an important role in the development of the modern world. [they] were not just somehow agentless victims of it. “
Without correction of these stories, particularly by Native American people, harmful stereotypes can persist, Stirrup said.
“There is still systemic racism,” Peters said, adding that harmful depictions of Native Americans continue to be seen in television, movies and other aspects of pop culture.
The renaming of the NFL team in Washington in July after mounting criticism of the use of an anti-indigenous bow signals a growing public demand for change, Peters said.
“This is a living story,” said Jo Loosemore, the curator of a Plymouth museum and art gallery, The Box, which is hosting an exhibition in partnership with the Wampanoag Nation.
“It’s a living story for descendants of the Mayflower passengers. But if you are a Wampanoag Indian in particular, this is a living story in the sense that you are still living with the effects of colonization, ”she said.
Indians continue to fight for their land rights, Loosemore said. In July, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation in Oklahoma to uphold its treaty rights for much of the state.
It’s not just indigenous themes that the Mayflower anniversary will reveal, Loosemore said. It also reflects many of the current crises, including resistance to immigration, religious and cultural clashes, and the destruction of land and resources that contribute to climate change.
These composite issues, along with the coronavirus pandemic, bring the plight of indigenous people in the United States and around the world to the fore.
“I think it can be argued that tribal peoples are more threatened today,” said artist Hampton.
Peters agrees that 2020 could mark a turning point: “I think people are absolutely more open to the damage that inaccuracies can cause in our history, in our history.
“We believe there is an opportunity here to really improve the record.”