Sitting on the lawn outside the Plimoth Plantation’s Visitor Center, Logan, 10, runs his hand over a tactile map.
Logan is one of nine students from Perkins School for the Blind visiting the Wampanoag Homesite, and he wants to know what to expect as he wanders through this “living history” recreation of how New England’s native people lived in the 17th century.
He explores the raised contours of the map and reads the braille captions. The map was made by the Plimoth Plantation especially for visitors who are visually impaired.
Logan hands the map back to the Plantation staffer and joins the five other boys and three girls from Perkins. Lower School teachers PJ Durand and Becky Hoffman guide them down a packed-dirt path, where they stop to feel the pointy quills of a pine tree and smell the fir trees. It’s a perfect day for a field trip – warm sunshine, a light breeze, the sharp aroma of autumn in the air.
Plimoth Plantation is located between Boston and Cape Cod, a little more than an hour away from Perkins’ Watertown campus. It features a recreated Colonial-era village and the Mayflower II sailing vessel, in addition to the Wampanoag Homesite.
“We’re talking about Native Americans in general (in history class) and studying the Wampanoags,” Durand explains. “We talk a bit about the people coming from Europe, but we mostly focus on the Native Americans who already lived here.”
A visit to the Wampanoag Homesite gives students a much better understanding of the people they’re studying, she says.
The group’s first stop is a mishoon, a long boat made from a log hollowed out by fire. The acrid smell of burning wood fills the air as Native Americans in traditional garb work to build another boat. All the staff members at the homesite are Wampanoag or members of another native people nation.
The students eagerly climb into a finished mishoon and pose for a picture.
“Why are there cracks in it?” asks Danzel, 11, as he runs his hands over the smooth interior. A staff member standing nearby explains that they are surface cracks, and that the boat is still water-tight.
Next, the students pass around toys that Wampanoag children would have played with, including a cornhusk doll and a doll made of softly napped deerskin.
Durand holds up a bearskin and students grab a handful of the bristly fur. Some of the students hold back, hesitant to touch the wickedly curved claws, while others eagerly feel the snout and ears.
At the wetu, the Wampanoags’ traditional dome-shaped home, a staff member holds open the flap of animal skin covering the doorway and invites the students to enter.
Inside, some students sit on animal furs spread atop a bench, while those in wheelchairs maneuver close to hear a Wampanoag woman talk about how her ancestors lived. She describes summer clothes made of deerskin and trimmed with fur, and winter clothes made from warm sealskin that protected them during bitterly cold New England months.
Back outside, the students touch the rough bark that covers the outside of the wetu. Then they follow the savory smell of deer stew cooking over an open fire to a woman balancing a baby on her hip who describes some favorite foods of the Wampanoag.
“Spring, summer and fall we ate shellfish and fish, and small game like rabbits and raccoons,” she says. “Skunk was a delicacy.” The students wince at the thought of eating skunk. They’re interested to learn that the Wampanoag also grew vegetables such as corn, squash and beans.
Each student takes a turn grinding corn with the large stone mortar and pestle, and then feels the coarsely ground cornmeal inside the smooth stone bowl.
History, once an abstract lesson from a textbook, becomes more and more vibrantly alive as students touch, hear and smell what everyday life in New England was like 400 years before they were born.