May 17, 2022

A Q&A with Ramona/Nosapocket Peters of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe

Ramona/Nosapocket Peters is a Bear Clan member of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Her work with and for Indigenous Peoples includes a wide array of areas, including repatriation, Indigenous rights, and historic and cultural preservation. She is the founder and president of the Native Land Conservancy, a nationwide native-run conservation trust. Ramona has a master’s degree in Applied Human and Community Development from the California School of Professional Psychology and a bachelor’s degree in Education from the University of Arizona.

Ramona was first introduced to Vipassana meditation in Myanmar under the instruction of Sayadaw U Pandita in 1996. In addition to her Buddhist practice, Ramona also recognizes and expresses gratitude for all the spiritual influences in her life.

Here, Ramona speaks with IMS’s Marketing Coordinator Albert Karcher about her art, heritage, advocacy work, spiritual influences, and involvement with IMS programs.

You began your Vipassana meditation practice in the ’90s in Myanmar with Sayadaw U Pandita. How did you come to study Vipassana with U Pandita and how did that lead you to IMS?

I was invited to Myanmar by a friend who was a practicing nun at the monastery with Sayadaw U Pandita in Yangon. We coordinated travelling to the East at the same time as exhibiting my pottery at a gallery outside Tokyo. From there I went to Thailand and then Myanmar on a meditation visa. The country was then closed to visitors otherwise.

I wasn’t familiar with mindfulness as a formal practice, but in my tribal community, we were taught to be mindful as children. We were taught to listen. And when you listen, there’s a lot going on in there, right? I’ve grown up with that mind state, for us, it’s just our way of life. After my first interview with Sayadaw, he sent me to his then under-construction “forest retreat center” which was the jungle—not quite a forest as I know them here.

Years later, my friend who invited me to Myanmar told me Christine Marshall [IMS’s Program Director] was now living and working in the U.S. Christine was a monastic in Myanmar when I was there at Panditarama. I first went to IMS with my friend to see Christine and pay respects to Sayadaw U Pandita when he was there. Since then, Christine has become a very good friend and I’ve continued to attend retreats at IMS throughout the years.

The Buddha’s teachings were very exciting and remain exciting for me. There are a lot of questions that I had that have been clearly answered by these teachings.

You mention that mindfulness was taught to you from a young age—part of growing up within the Mashpee Wampanoag community. Would you share more of your family background?

We are one tribe within an Indigenous Nation of people in Massachusetts. I come from a traditional family, meaning we carry on many of the ancestral teachings and ceremonial practices of the Wampanoag tradition. I am a member of the Bear Clan, a matrilineal people, in Mashpee, Massachusetts. The Wampanoag Nation are first contact Indigenous Peoples—western contact beginning with the landing of the Mayflower.

My family has been involved in the spiritual, cultural, and civic life of the town, tribe, and Wampanoag nation. We are modern-day natives who once (1870-1975) ran this town and took care of the schools, roads, and all aspects of civic life. My family has been active on all fronts, cultivating what is here now, but also honoring the traditions of our people

Can you tell us more about your art and how it reflects some of your spiritual experience?

I wasn’t always a potter. A museum curator asked me to make an artifact reproduction of a Wampanoag cooking pot. In the process of making that first piece I had what I could only call a spiritual experience. It brought me to an understanding of the self in a vessel—our form or body—and of what we carry and what in there could be nourishing. A lot of teachings started to whisper through and opened a door to my understanding of our presence here on Earth through the clay itself. I hadn’t realized how much I needed it. Clay helped transform a lot of cultural teachings into understandings. I’ve since learned that there’s traceable evidence that the Earth holds the DNA of our ancestors.

When I travelled to Japan, I was with a group of other American artists. We were doing a cultural exchange with some Japanese women artists. Well before that trip, I was already on my spiritual journey. Chitta has drawn me to many places in this world. It has led me to and through educational experiences at the best rate of my intelligence. For example, it’s brought me to mental states where doubt arises or my faith wobbles, and I realize that I have no excuse to lose faith because I’ve had too many experiences that have demonstrated that there is absolute love and protection—as the Buddha spoke about. Mara had not been a stranger and is now an ally.

I understand you have many spiritual influences in your life. Can you talk about your involvement with and relationship to some of these influences?

The Nipponzan Myohoji are a Japanese Buddhist order. They walk while chanting with drums through areas to purify the land of negative energy embedded from human atrocities. My father helped them build a pagoda in Leverette, Massachusetts, so I was introduced to them through my father. We’ve been friends for many years, and they’ve walked all over the planet where bad things have happened. One year they decided to walk down the East Coast of this country into the Middle Passage and down the West Coast of Africa to retrace the history of African slavery. And I walked with them on that journey, 14-20 miles per day at 4 miles per hour.

I love the idea of changing the energy of the Earth where things have settled. And it’s part of the Wampanoag tradition as well. We know that human impacts remain in the Earth. Certain energies from awful behavior get left around that we don’t want to reoccur. It’s a beautiful tradition to purify the land by chanting.

The Longhouse tradition of the Haunenosaunee [Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy] is the closest to the tradition to what my people had before we were interrupted by colonization. The Longhouse tradition is dear to me. I lived with them at Onondaga for a couple of years. I would have stayed there, but I was needed at home. I still go back for different ceremonies and to be with friends. Some visit me here in Mashpee.

I was once summoned to Hawaii to visit with the Kahuna [Hawaiian Kahuna of Kona] called Hale Kealohalai Makua Jr. He wanted to teach me many things. But I was not ready to understand what he was trying to teach me. I was young and still kind of angry and confused. I was just listening and following instructions. As I matured, I understood more about what he was saying and what he was trying to show me. Makua pointed me to the rest of the universe for further education. The man glowed like the stars he knew so well. He literally glowed with aloha love.

It was the same with Thomas Yellowtail, a Crow Medicine man and Sun Dance Chief in Montana. He actually had a halo I could see. He helped me through a difficult series of dreams that were really haunting. He was a healer—that was one of his blessings. Thomas reminded me about the medicine helpers we can summon in times of need.

Also, I went to Ecuador to learn from the Sequoya Shamans. They are current first contact people. They are just now being introduced to Westerners. They live deep in the jungle. It took several days and hours by dugout canoe to get to their village. I camped with them for a while. They still forage for food. I had to have two translators because their language only uses a few sounds. They have great knowledge of other realms. That is something I also needed to put into context with today’s life.

I’m very glad that people like the Sequoia are still carrying on their traditions. I have witnessed Indigenous ceremonies that made me feel that if they stopped the whole planet would cease moving. There’s major importance to the human relationship with this Earth that is not limited to just this realm. There is an interplay that’s not acknowledged and the lack of it makes us weak.

Unfortunately, Western European colonialists were not interested in other cultures. They discounted them as though they had no human value. Besides being audacious, it was a huge mistake. This has happened all over the planet. There’s certain sacred information that was planted within each cultural grouping. That information was supposed to come together at one point. We’re taught that the people of the world would all come together and share what each were given to reveal the original intent of creation. The erasure of this teaching—out of ignorance—is tragic.

The Buddhist path encourages practitioners to understand where they’ve come from or to come home to their roots. Is this like what the Mashpee Wampanoag believe? Are there other teachings that are similar?

Yes, we are taught that our ancestors have planted gifts in our bodies. These are not simply talents or eye color or the shape of your body. It’s teachings, attitudes, thoughts, and emotions—all kinds of things that are not necessarily yours. Yes, looking at them with the perspective of “not me, not mine” gives us a clue. When I came across similar teachings within Buddhism, I was so impressed. It reaffirms some of my ancestors’ insights—they are aligned with what the Buddha was talking about.

I think the desire to cease suffering was not the same motivation for our spiritual teachers. Our teachings are more about being in thanksgiving and grateful for the life force in all living things. You cannot say “thank you” if you do not know what you have been given. Learning what’s been given is another way of going inside and looking at life, asking, “What is this?” “Why is it given to me?” So, there are similarities but not from the same direction. The thread of our teachings is anchored in being thankful. Indeed, that requires mindfulness.

You were a guest speaker for the IMS Online Indigenous Peoples Insight Meditation Weekend, the first program IMS organized for Indigenous Peoples. How was that experience for you?

I was hesitant to do that retreat as I’m not a trained [dharma] teacher. I wasn’t sure about the wisdom of separating the sangha by racial identity. Like how that fits in with the way that the Buddha presented or organized his community. The American mix of things is always going to be different, but I was not sure that it was a great idea. Shedding one’s identity leads to freedom—that is how I understand his teaching.

One of the relieving experiences we have on retreat is that we are quietly moving in a sangha, not looking at people or speaking to anyone. Notably, on the People of Color Retreats, you can relax into not feeling pressures that come from the White gaze. I understand separation if it helps us to get into a peaceful, relaxed state.

As far as the teaching goes, clinging to racial or any identity can cause suffering. It certainly has caused me a lot of suffering and most of my people are suffering because of their racial identity or how others view it. I was able to temporarily free myself from Wampanoag identity and all its baggage—it happened like “boom!” I was so happy not only for me, but for all my relations connected to this ancestry. Metta practice facilitated this: “May I be free from suffering the transgenerational trauma of my people.”

To get to a place of the real, true self, you really have to release the conditions and contortions of identity. Having experienced that, it makes things more hopeful—to offer peace to our folks who are suffering from it.

You have taken part in IMS’s Indigenous Insight, a monthly virtual gathering for Indigenous Peoples with Jeanne Corrigal and Bonnie Duran. Can you tell us about this experience and your thoughts on the program?

During the last retreat I went to in February, I heard my internal voice speaking to a group of Indigenous People about the Dharma. This happened more than once during sittings, so I paid closer attention. I was very surprised but understood that there were some things that needed to be shared. Things that I may be uniquely prepared to offer. When I got off retreat there was an email waiting from Jeanne Corrigal asking me to be a guest on their monthly Indigenous Insight program, and I replied “yes.”

We natives are being called forward. There’s very few of us left in this country—1.1% in population. We’re a people who have been relegated to the nostalgic past. Meaning, we’ve been made to believe we’re only relevant if we’re oriented in the past. So, how do we—as contemporary natives—evolve if we are clinging to the past? Elders say, “We’re navigating the stream with one foot in a canoe and the other in a boat.” It isn’t easy, but it can be done, and it’s necessary. Buddha taught that the life forces are only flowing in the present, not the past or future. To those few native people who are interested in Dharma, I applaud them because these tools are very helpful. This is a path that embraces all traditions. It’s not something that discredits others. It’s a practice that doesn’t make choices for you.

What is your relationship with the Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral homeland is the land where IMS is located?

Their ancestral homelands included a great swath of area in Massachusetts, part of Rhode Island, and some in Connecticut as well. It was once was a very big nation. They—and all of us—got hit really hard with land loss.

I do know some of the Nipmuc leadership. They’re the key people who interface with the public. A few of us native people you could say are “bridge” people. We’re also protecting our tribal people who do not wish to be bothered by the outside world.

When IMS was trying to find out who were the Indigenous People of the land that IMS sits on, they asked me. It is the Nipmuc, but there’s Indian law and federal law, and only the federally recognized tribes have the legal right to do certain things, like benefit from Acts of Congress.

In 1990, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act was passed. At the time, my tribe was not federally recognized, but we are now. We had to get support from the then only federally recognized tribe in Massachusetts—the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah)—to repatriate. The Nipmuc are not recognized so we’ve been doing that with and for them to repatriate and protect their sacred sites. Because federal rights supersede the territory, it appears that the Wampanoag tribes are the Indigenous Peoples overseeing the land that IMS sits on. And it’s true, in a way, due to the federal Indian law, but as soon as the Nipmuc are federally recognized, they can exercise their own rights without any assistance from us. That’s one of the ways that we work together. As Indigenous Peoples, we recognize them as a tribal nation and their homelands.