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Raising a New Chief through the Caucus: Indigenous Democracy at Work in Mashpee

By Hartman Deetz (Mashpee Wampanoag)

On May 6, 2023, as England was coronating a new king after weeks of mourning the passing of their previous ruler, Mashpee Wampanoags were also taking the day to fill the void of leadership left by the death of Vernon “Silent Drum” Lopez, the chief of Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe for the last 25 years of his life. Silent Drum was raised as a chief in the tradition of the Wampanoag Peoples that stretches back to pre-colonial times. Unlike the tradition of monarchs, the tradition of raising a chief is a democratic one. The process of caucusing is simple: voters line up behind the nominee they support, and the bigger crowd wins. 

While our elections in the United States are filled with smear tactics, attack ads, and debates that pit candidates against each other for prime time entertainment, in a traditional caucus, no one speaks badly of their opponent. In fact, the nominees don't speak at all. Potential leaders are nominated by community members who stand up and speak to the community about why they believe their nominee would be well suited to lead the people. As a Peoples, we value humility, and are wary of those who seek positions of power.  The self-aggrandized politicians who are well suited to the mudslinging contests of American politics might well not have anyone to speak on their behalf in our traditional system. When Silent Drum was raised as a chief, he said of the people uniting behind him, “I was surprised by it, to be quite honest.” Truly a humble man.

In speaking with Silent Drum’s daughter, Marlene Lopez, who holds the traditional position of a Clan Mother in Mashpee, she told me that over the past three years the Sunday morning Clan Mothers meetings had brought forward a number of potential candidates for the next chief. In this way, the Clan Mothers of Mashpee held on to the traditional process of raising a new chief as had been done for millennia before. She also said they had to hold firm to their decisions about time and place, even when facing pressure from the Elders to move the date further into the summer to gain greater attendance, as many community members travel to be in Mashpee for our annual pow wow. In spite of the spring date, between 300-400 Tribal members came out to participate in the ceremony—the biggest gathering recorded in that ceremonial circle.

I am thankful that when we came together to choose our new leader we did not have to choose the lesser evil, but instead had the pleasure of choosing the greatest good among us.  We came together in the same place as we raised Silent Drum at our ceremonial circle at 55 Acres. The ceremony began by dividing based on gender and entering the circle from their respective doors. Tribal members were spiritually cleansed by smudging with cedar and sage smoke. Our Medicine Man, “Soaring Eagle” Guy Cash, prepared the altar, started the sacred fire, and spoke to the people. Next, our Tribal Chairman, Brian Weeden, shared the song for the “Welcome Dance,” and the people danced together. Then, the nominating process began.

Four people were nominated. One Tribal member had traveled from far western Massachusetts and was relatively unknown by people in Mashpee. He was nominated by his brother. Another nominee was Marlene Lopez, who was nominated by Tribal member Paula Peters. Buddy Pocknett, an avid fisherman and culture keeper and the son of the late Chief Vernon “Sly Fox” Pocknett, the predecessor of Silent Drum, was nominated by his sister, Sherry Pocknett. All in attendance strained to hear the softly spoken words of Darryl Wixon as he nominated Earl Mills Jr., a Sundancer and son of Chief Earl “Flying Eagle” Mills Sr. 

Silent Drum lived to be 100 years old, a centurion, something most people don't achieve. However, in the understanding of his mortality, he had requested that the people come together and start to consider who would succeed him as the next chief. The community had three choices that were well suited to the role; all of them had tried to turn away from the task saying that the others might be more qualified. Humbleness and humility are valued characteristics for leadership in our community, as are initiative, knowledge, compassion, and generosity. As Elder matriarchs of their respective clans, the Clan Mothers have watched these candidates grow up from the time they were children, and have seen their characters develop over a lifetime. The matriarchs of their families hold a significant role in vetting and nominating candidates, but ultimately it is up to the community as a whole to decide.