PEOPLE: Q&A: Reflections on Native-African American history, identity

Posted on October 17th, 2009 by americanindiannews in People

Washington—Penny Gamble-Williams remembers times when people accused her of lying about her Native ancestry because they saw her as African American.

Courtesy Penny Gamble Williams and Thunder Williams

Courtesy Penny Gamble Williams and Thunder Williams - click photo for full resolution version

The former Sunksqua or female sachem of the Chappaquiddick Band of the Wampanoag Nation of Massachusetts shared the experiences with the American Indian News Service in an interview about the upcoming exhibition “IndiVisible: African-Native American Lives in the Americas.” She and her husband, Thunder Williams, lead the Ohke Cultural Network Inc. which submitted the proposal for the exhibition to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.

“I have been an activist in movements—AIM, Women of All Red Nations and others. At a meeting of the Black Panthers in the 1970s, they told me that I had to choose. “You are either black or Indian, you can’t be both.’ I made my choice.”

The experience reminded Gamble-Williams of the time her fifth-grade teacher walked up to her desk after reading an essay about her summer vacation on Martha’s Vineyard. Squeezing the young Gamble-Williams’ shoulder, the teacher said, “It’s not nice to make up stories. Everyone knows the New England Indians are dead.”

Gamble-Williams, who is descended from African American and Alabama Creek on her father’s side and African American and Chappaquiddick/Wampanoag on her mother’s, is a visual storyteller and cultural presenter. She serves as spiritual leader of the Chappaquiddick Band of the Wampanoag Nation of Massachusetts (

Thunder Williams, whose lineage is Carib Indian, African and European, emigrated from Trinidad and Tobago at age 5.

Both have been active in the African American, Native American and Afro-Caribbean communities. For the past decade, they’ve hosted The Talking Feather Radio Show on Radio One WOL 1450 AM in Washington, D.C. It is also broadcast on Blog Talk Radio at
They joined American Indian News Service Editor Kara Briggs for an interview recently.

Kara Briggs: Why is the IndiVisible exhibition important for America?

Penny Gamble-Williams: This exhibition, IndiVisible, is valuable because it helps all people formulate another way of looking at the history of this country. We cannot obfuscate the facts of American history, deny that genocidal practices nearly wiped out an entire race of people or refuse to acknowledge that two richly diverse indigenous civilizations, the African and Native, mightily contributed to the wealth and prosperity of the Americas.

Thunder Williams: African-Americans and Native peoples stood together in the cotton and tobacco fields. We were often literally chained together. We were bonded through the tyranny of oppression and colonization. We intermixed and intermarried on the Underground Railroad, the forced removals across Turtle Island and the resistance in maroon colonies.
All these experiences give us a rich shared heritage.

Kara Briggs: Penny, you grew up in Providence, R.I., not far from Chappaquiddick and the island homelands of the Wampanoag. You were saying that the tribe was a whaling tribe originally?

Penny Gamble-Williams: Chappaquiddick men were whalers historically, and after colonization they had to go out on the whaling ships to make a living. Whaling was one of the toughest jobs during that time and because the men were out to sea for long periods of time, sometimes years, it took a toll on the elders, women and children. Some of the men never returned home, either, because of death or settling in other parts of the world.

Thunder Williams: As the Native men went out to sea, African American and other foreign men who worked in the surrounding areas of the islands intermarried and became part of the tribal community.

Penny Gamble-Williams: My great-great-great aunt, Sarah Brown, who was Chappaquiddick, married a black whaling captain, William A. Martin. His great-grandmother had been enslaved on Martha’s Vineyard Island and was owned by the Bassett family. When I was Sunksqua of the Chappaquiddick from 1995 to 2002, Thunder and I traveled to London and conducted research in the British Museum, the Guildhall Library, Oxford and the Maritime Museum. It was amazing to see documents that related specifically to the Chappaquiddick and other Wampanoag Bands of Massachusetts, as well as Narragansett and Pequot.

Kara Briggs: What did you learn personally through that research?

Penny Gamble-Williams: Most of the European American whaling captains were well off and had stately homes in Edgartown. William and Sarah lived in a humble home that he built on Chappaquiddick. The house still stands and is privately owned. It needs major repair. There is no plaque showing the history of this black whaling captain. He and Sarah were married for 50 years. (Editor’s note: As this issue went into production the New York Times published an article about the current owner of William A. Martin’s house putting it up for sale.

Kara Briggs: Three generations before you, your relatives lived on the Chappaquiddick Reservation, were allotted land and owned houses. But in your childhood Chappaquiddick was anything but home.

Penny Gamble-Williams: I heard the stories and spent time with the elders of my family. I enjoyed every summer until I was 16 years old on Martha’s Vineyard in Oak Bluffs on Wamsutta Avenue. On some occasions we’d get in my uncle’s convertible and take a trip to Chappaquiddick. That’s where my mother would talk about the land and family. I’d say, ‘Why can’t we get out and walk around?’ My mother never wanted to.

Thunder Williams: Even now when you talk about the Chappaquiddick Indians, the current residents on Chappaquiddick Island, who are 99.9 percent European, seem threatened or guilt-ridden or noticeably indifferent.

Kara Briggs: In reconstituting your nation and reclaiming nation’s ties to Chappaquiddick Island, you faced court battles with residents even to have access to that burial ground. They were claiming that you weren’t Wampanoag.

Penny Gamble-Williams: Every Chappaquiddick family had title to the land that had been allotted in the 1800s. Most had to move from the island in order to make a living. My family moved to Nantucket, New Bedford and Providence. The ties were never broken. When I grew up I had my map with lots of information about family land on the reservation.

Kara Briggs: You and your family have been culturally active for decades. There are Chappaquiddick/ Wampanoag burial grounds on the island that have become gathering places for your people. But there was resistance to your reclaiming those places.

Penny Gamble-Williams: On occasion when my family got letters from attorneys representing parties who owned land in common with us, they would ask me, ‘Why are you trying to hold onto this land when you are not even Indian?’ They felt that because I didn’t grow up on Chappaquiddick I knew nothing about the land or the culture. They were wrong. Because of all these experiences we decided to have ceremonies on Chappaquiddick at one of the burial grounds where many of our relatives had been buried.

Thunder Williams: It’s normal for Europeans to visit their burial grounds, but if Native people want to pay homage to their ancestor and do ceremonies in their spiritual tradition they seem not to understand. They seem not to understand our deep-rooted spiritual bonding to Mother Earth and the healing nature of walking on the land, not selling it and not building trophy houses on it.

– By Kara Briggs, American Indian News Service

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