united american indians of new england

Historical Information

Wamsutta Frank James - presente!
Sam Sapiel - presente!

Wamsutta Frank James

Sam Sapiel

Sam Sapiel, 75, Indian Activist, Spiritual Leader

Boston Globe - Boston, MA
Author: Marquard, Bryan
May 16, 2007

Sam Sapiel stood on Deer Island on a chilly February day in 1993, snow dusting his shoulders and memories gripping his heart. "On days like these, Deer Island reminds me of Wounded Knee," he said. "We have to remember the things that were done, the atrocities."

Remembering elders and the Indian ways defined Mr. Sapiel's life and work. He was a full Penobscot Indian who prayed in the Penobscot language and used English to persuade the descendants of European settlers to respect the grounds upon which his ancestors had walked and died.

A lifelong activist for the rights of indigenous people, Mr. Sapiel died in his house in Falmouth Saturday of kidney cancer that had metastasized. He was 75 and also had a homestead on Indian Island in Old Town, Maine, where he was born.

His death "is a huge loss to this community," said Joanne Dunn, executive director of the North American Indian Center of Boston. "It's devastating, because he was so many wonderful things. He was the heart of this community, he truly was. We loved him very much."

A spiritual leader, Mr. Sapiel led the opening prayers at the center's events. He had been a life member of the group since it was the Boston Indian Council, which evolved into the current organization.

"He was always thinking and praying in his language, wanting to do things the good way, the Indian way," said Shirley Mills, who was married to Mr. Sapiel in 1975 by a medicine man on the Penobscot Reservation in Maine.

"There aren't that many speakers left in the Penobscot language," Dunn said.

Prayers were only part of Mr. Sapiel's contributions, however. He attended the National Day of Mourning ceremonies on Cole's Hill in Plymouth near Plymouth Rock, where Native people mourn the losses suffered by tribes across the nation as Thanksgiving Day is celebrated.

Through the 1990s, Mr. Sapiel was a leader of the Muhheconnew National Confederacy, an alliance of tribes from Maine to Delaware that has worked to protect burial grounds and Native American sites.

Among his other advocacy efforts were protests over land use ranging from a dog park to construction of a sewage treatment plant on Deer Island. In 1675, colonists forced hundreds of Native Americans to the island, and many did not survive the winter.

Mr. Sapiel also took part in the successful push two years ago to repeal a 1675 law that banned Native Americans from entering Boston.

"Most people are not able to be spiritual leaders or traditionalists and still be political activists," Dunn said. "He was one of the few people I know who could pull that off."

John Sapiel, who was known to most as Sam, was good at sports growing up, though his early accomplishments were tempered by a lack of money.

"It was hard," Mills said. "He was an excellent athlete, but he couldn't afford sneakers."

Sometimes he would borrow sneakers from others at school and use them. Sometimes they were the wrong size.

Retaining his athletic prowess into later years, Mr. Sapiel competed in contests until 2005, taking part in triathlons and an annual 100-mile run from Indian Island to Mount Katahdin in Maine. He also was a golfer who participated in Native American tournaments and scored a hole-in-one at the Woodbriar Golf Club in Falmouth in 2001, 2002, and 2005.

Two years ago, he was honored by the Boys and Girls Club on Indian Island, which named its facility for Mr. Sapiel.

"He helped people and respected people, particularly children and the elders," Mills said.

"He didn't have children of his own, but every child was his," Dunn said. "That's what kind of man he was."

In 1995, as the federal government moved to have museums across the country submit inventories of all Native American remains and funeral objects in their possession, Mr. Sapiel spoke to the Globe about the importance of such items.

"These things have a lot of significance," he said. "We believe that when Indian people die, they go to the spirit world and they have to take their belongings with them. And the symbolic value of some of these other objects is the way they tell the true story of what happened to the Indian people through the years."

Using humor and stories from the past, Mr. Sapiel often found himself in the role of conciliator when disagreements broke out among acquaintances.

"If he knew someone was having a hard time with another person, he would try to bring everybody together, and he'd say, `Let's pray,"' Dunn said.

The sight and sound of Mr. Sapiel leading a prayer, with medicine bundle in hand, was familiar for many Native Americans in New England over the past decades, such as four years ago when he and others were fighting a dog park on Deer Island, arguing that its presence defiled grounds where Indians may have perished and been buried.

"O Great Spirit, o creator of all living things, help keep us strong," he said while waving a stick of burning sage during a gathering of Native Americans in Jamaica Plain. "We ask you to bless the wetlands and the monuments and sacred burial grounds."

In addition to his wife, Mr. Sapiel leaves two sisters, Patricia Lizotte of Wallingford, Conn., and Viola Cotta of Indian Island in Old Town, Maine; two stepdaughters, Roxanne Brown of Ada, Okla., and Shelly Pocknett of Mashpee; two stepsons, Earl Mills Jr. and Robert Mills, both of Mashpee; nine grandsons; and six granddaughters.

A service will be held at 5 p.m. tomorrow at the Boys and Girls Club on Indian Island in Old Town, Maine.

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The Death of Native Leader Wamsutta Frank James

Dear Friends:

We are sorry to let you know that Wamsutta Frank James died around midnight last night (Feb. 20, 2001). He was a lifelong warrior for all Native people. He never gave up the fight for self-determination, land, and treaty rights.

Below is some general information we have provided to area newspapers to use in writing obituary columns. At the bottom is information about the burial which is scheduled for Saturday, 24 February at noon for those who wish to attend.

Moonanum James for United American Indians of New England

Frank B. (Wamsutta) James 1923-2001

Frank B. (Wamsutta) James, an Aquinnah Wampanoag elder and Native Americanactivist, died February 20, 2001 at the age of 77.

James first came to national attention in 1970 when he, with hundreds of other Native Americans and their supporters, went to Plymouth, Massachusetts and declared Thanksgiving day a National Day of Mourning for Native Americans.

The National Day of Mourning protest in Plymouth continues to this day, now led by his son, and the group James helped found in 1970, the United American Indians of New England (UAINE).

James was proud of his Native American heritage long before it was fashionable to do so, and spent many hours researching the history of theWampanoag Nation and of the English invasion of the New England region.

A brilliant trumpet player, James was the first Native American graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music in 1948. While many of his classmates secured positions with top symphony orchestras, James was flatly told that, due to segregation and racism, no orchestra in the country would hire him because of his dark skin. While at the Conservatory, he became the first non-white member of the Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia fraternity.

In 1957, James became a music teacher on Cape Cod, where he was a very popular and influential instructor. He went on to become the Director of Music of the Nauset Regional Schools, retiring in 1989.

James devoted much of his life to fighting against racism and to fighting for the rights of all Indian people. James often traveled long distances to be at Native American protests, including the Trail of Broken Treaties in Washington, DC in 1972, when Native American activists took over the Burea of Indian Affairs building, and the historic Longest Walk from California to Washington, DC in 1978. Although he was less active in recent years due to declining health, he always maintained an interest in all Native American issues.

He was the moderator of United American Indians of New England from 1970 until the mid-1990s. [UAINE is the organization which organizes the National Day of Mourning protests in Plymouth.] A former President of the Federated Eastern Indian League, he was also the Executive Director of Operation Mainstream on Cape Cod in the 1970s. [FEIL was an organization of all Native American people from the East Coast.] [Operation Mainstream was a federally-funded job retraining program serving the Cape and Islands; it was later absorbed by CETA.] In the 1970s, he was appointed by Gov. Sargent to the newly-created Mass. Commission on Indian Affairs. James later resigned from the Commission due to what he felt was the state’s refusal to take Native American needs and issues seriously. [See the "The Suppressed Speech of Wamsutta James", which was delivered at the first National Day of Mourning in Plymouth, MA in 1970]

James was considered by many who knew him to be a true Renaissance man. In addition to his many other talents, he was also a gifted painter, scrimshaw artist, silversmith, draftsman, builder, raconteur, model shipmaker, fisherman, and sailor.

He is survived by his sisters, June MacDonald of Chatham, Vivian of Brewster, and Shirley Freethy of Chathamport; his children Roland of Weymouth, Sharon Ryone of Brewster, and Donna Sacher of Westminster, Colorado; and his grandchildren Allen, Derek, Benjamin, Andrew, Leslie, Ki’Sha, and Womsikuk.

Burial will be at the Seaside Cemetery on Crowell Road in Chatham, MA on Saturday, February 24 at 12 noon.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to the:

Metacom Education Project, Inc.
P.O. Box 697512
Quincy, MA 02269
which has established the Wamsutta Frank James Memorial Scholarship Fund.

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