On this day, Devaney’s aunt Gloria Marilu Garcia is visiting from El Salvador and is in the kitchen preparing rice and beans and thick corn tortillas made from Salvadoran masa. She speaks only Spanish, so her son Darwin González translates for the group, including Devaney’s boyfriend, Juarez Stanley, a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, and her 11-year-old daughter.
Beside the weathered deck that leads from the cottage to the Long Pond’s shore, four trunks rising from an oak tree are covered in pale gray-green lichen. Its branches shade Kristen Wyman, a member of the Nipmuc Tribe, as she sits at a table and cuts an heirloom watermelon for the party, setting the seeds aside for future planting. There’s a colorful harvest in front of her: Algonquin squash, carrots, Hot Portugal chili peppers, and corncobs from Maine; Nipmuc squash from Rhode Island, apples from Massachusetts, and from El Salvador, corncobs, zapote, and almond seeds, and a dark, slightly spicy honey collected from hives in coffee fields.
Wyman’s cousin Marcus Hendricks belongs to both the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe and the Nipmuc Nation. He’s arrived today with three striped bass he caught in Barnstable Harbor that morning. They’re big, about 25 pounds each, and cleaning them is going to be messy. There’s a debate about where to work. Devaney decides to pull a large folding table over the edge of the deck directly into the water, where she, Hendricks, and González take turns scaling, gutting, and filleting. They each narrate their technique as they prepare the fish while a bevy of swans hovers in the shallow waters nearby. Wyman watches, pressing sunflowers for oil. There’s a lot of teasing, laughing, and storytelling. Although the people who gather at Long Pond this afternoon belong to different Native tribes, as members of the Eastern Woodlands Rematriation Collective, they are all kin.
Formally organized in 2018, the Collective is a group of matriarchal-centered Native people, two-spirits, and men. The term “two-spirit” is used by certain Native communities to represent beings who embody both male and female genders. The Collective aspires to a nonbinary understanding of gender, mirroring more fluid genders that exists in nature, where, for instance, many plants have both male and female reproductive structures. And whereas colonization undermined the leadership roles of Indigenous women, the Collective strives to restore feminine power.
“Rematriation” is at the heart of everything the Collective is and all that it does. Wyman explains the concept in this way, while: “patriarchy is about dominance and control and overpowering, matriarchy is about life, growth, nurturing, and abundance. . . . The best way that we can understand that is through seeds. One seed can lead to hundreds and thousands . . . [Likewise,] in caretaking each other, we know that we can provide and have what we need, and that’s how we live abundantly. As opposed to this patriarchal world, where it seems everything’s about survival of the fittest and whoever has the most is the one that’s going to come out on top. In rematriating, we’re returning to those basic inherent principles that we see in the Earth model.”
The Collective’s mission is to restore the spiritual foundation of Indigenous people through regenerative food systems. They do so by initiating food and medicine projects in tribal communities throughout the Northeast, conscious of the Iroquois philosophy that in making any decision, they consider the effect on their kin seven generations in the future. Wyman expands: “[We] keep in mind the people who came before us and the people who have yet to come. We have that role of being the in-between connectivity.”
Her own connection to her ancestral Native identity was complex in her youth. She’s a direct descendant of John Speen, or Qualalanset, of the Nipmuc Nation, one of the original proprietors of Natick. Speen lost his land in a deal with Puritan minister and missionary John Eliot, who established Natick as a “Praying Town” in 1651. According to the Natick Historical Society, the purpose of establishing these towns was to “separate Native people from their traditional lifeways, spiritual traditions, and kinship networks so that they could work towards converting to the Puritan faith.”
Wyman’s grandmother, a traditional Nipmuc leader, married into the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe and grew up in the housing projects of Boston, “identifying as a mixed [race] person. She understood that within our family line we have African, Irish, and Native American identities, and she grew up at a time where you didn’t really talk much about your identity as a Native person.” This was a time when, as with “Praying Towns,” programs like mandatory boarding schools forced Indigenous children to give up their Native languages and traditions, and states like Massachusetts still had laws like the 1675 act that banned Native Americans from entering Boston (it was repealed in 2005).
Despite her grandmother’s heritage, Wyman did not think of herself as Native: “Growing up, we had this understanding of being Native, an image that was taught to us from the outside world of who a Native person was. And I didn’t always fit that description or image. And so I questioned, ‘Were we really actually real Native Americans?’”
It wasn’t until she attended UMass Amherst to study Native American law and came into contact with its Native student community, including Devaney, that she began to connect her to Native identity. She now describes it in this way: “I see myself as someone born into the kinship of not only [my] family lines . . . but the kinship of waterways for which [the Nipmuc people] belong, the lands that were part of the Eastern Woodlands people. These are just as much a part of my identity as my name.”
In her years after UMass, Wyman “advocated for my ancestors,” through environmental justice and conservation, and her work as a youth program manager for the Boston Harbor Islands National and State Park. When she founded the Eastern Woodlands Rematriation Collective with Alivia Moore of the Penobscot Nation and Nia Holley, a Nipmuc member, she (and they) had grown to see that “our food and land relationships are central to reconnecting our people . . . to who we truly are.”
Their work, though, would not be focused on “farming.” Wyman explains why the Collective’s relationship with the word “farming” is “very complex and challenging.” She characterizes the agriculture that developed among North American Natives around 1000 BC as more akin to “cultivation,” very different than the type of farming introduced by colonizers who parceled, divided, and controlled the land. She contrasts: “Our concept of farming was more relational in terms of understanding the cycles of the seasons and our creation stories.” And, “it was more of a community, a shared community effort . . . the word ‘farming,’ or the act of ‘farming,’ continuously places the power on the person, and it’s absent the power . . . and the choice of our kin. . . . [A] plant can’t talk in a sense that we would, but we can see over time, it tells us a story about its own health over time. I think Indigenous people knew those systems and knew that language very intimately in a way that we never wanted to exert power over, but wanted to work in concert in collectivity, in collaboration with for the benefit of all.”
The Collective’s growing initiatives throughout New England take place on privately held land, state parks, and tribal land like the Hassanamisco Nipmuc Reservation in Grafton. Ten “brigade leaders,” including Devaney and Wyman, are members of the communities they represent and use their intimate knowledge to support those communities and lead food-related projects, in so doing, engaging with members of eight Eastern Woodlands tribes: the Mashpee Wampanoag, Narragansett, Nipmuc, Mohegan, Penobscot, Abenaki, Massachusett, and Mi’kmaw, and in South America, through Devaney, the Salvadoran Pipil.
In Tiverton, R.I., brigade leader…