Wampanoag Historian

Chester Soliz, D61, wants to preserve the narrative and traditions of the Mashpee tribe
Chester Soliz
Chester Soliz downplays the fact that he was the first Mashpee Wampanoag to earn a doctoral degree. “It wasn’t that I did anything great,” he says. “It’s just that I decided to do it.” Photo: Brad DeCecco
May 30, 2012

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Chester Soliz, D61, grew up in the Wampanoag community in Mashpee, Mass. Of the 269 people who lived in Mashpee during the ’30s and ’40s, only one family was non-Indian. But the history Soliz learned in school never mentioned the Wampanoag, or much about Indians at all. When Soliz pointed this out to his mother, a woman who could trace her lineage back four centuries to the great sachem Massasoit, she shrugged: That’s just the way it is.

He knew there was a history, because the tribal elders would recount the stories, as was the oral tradition. “I realized early on, what happens when Uncle Lee dies? And what happens when Uncle Brazil dies? The history goes with them,” Soliz says. “And that’s not right.”

By the time Soliz was in his 70s, historians had documented the stories of many Western Indian tribes, but not the Wampanoag. So Soliz, a retired general dentist and real estate developer, took it upon himself.

He spent eight years trolling libraries and museums, dissecting history books, scouring the Massachusetts Archeological Society collections and interviewing tribal elders. He looked through tattered letters, stained maps, charred posters and torn pages from books and diaries. “When I found there were different versions of a particular incident, I put both down,” he says.

The result was The Historical Footprints of the Mashpee Wampanoag, which he published last year. It is primarily a tale of oppression and injustice, of a people deceived at every turn for hundreds of years. That legacy left Soliz, like most Wampanoag, with few advantages. But that didn’t stop him from pursuing an education, a dental career and a dream of restoring the Wampanoag to their rightful place in American history.

Beyond Mashpee

As a child, Soliz, whose Wampanoag name is Blue Duck, lived with his mother and brother in a four-room house in Mashpee. (His father, a seaman from Colombia and a South American Indian, died when Soliz was 3.) By the time he was 8, he had learned to hunt and trap with the tribe elders, bringing home deer, rabbit, raccoon, pheasant, partridge and duck. His mother kept a garden. And of course there were fish in the bays—bass, blues, scallops, clams, quahogs and oysters—more plentiful than they are now.

If a neighbor went blueberry picking, she would share a pot of extras. “We never thought of a food shortage,” Soliz says. “Everybody cooked, and everybody cooked well.” It was a subsistence life, not far removed from the way his ancestors had lived—although they did have electricity and a telephone party line, which his mother paid for by working as a domestic.

Even though he loved Mashpee, Soliz could see at a young age that his boundaries were limited. The primary employment was working as groundskeepers or handymen for the white people who owned large Cape Cod estates. Few people moved away from Mashpee, and very few went to college.

Soliz had other ideas. “I realized that I needed to move on, because if not, I would be circumscribed in this small area,” he says. When he told his high school guidance counselor that he was interested in taking college-track courses, the man looked at him askance and asked, “Are you sure?”

“Well, I’m not sure,” Soliz replied. “But I think I would like to try.”

He did well—so well, in fact, that after high school he was given the chance to attend a college preparatory school for a year, and then was accepted to Johns Hopkins University. He worked part-time to help pay for it, most notably as an acid cleaner in a laboratory, where he used boiling sulfuric acid to disinfect Petri dishes and test tubes. He earned 50 cents an hour.

It was the family dentist who inspired Soliz’s career choice. “My mother didn’t make a lot of money,” he says, remembering her pride at earning $1,700 in a good year. “But she always made sure that we saw the doctor once a year, and we always went to the dentist. He had a nice way about him, and he seemed to be enjoying life.” So Soliz applied to Tufts School of Dental Medicine, class of 1961.

Chester Soliz beneath a portrait taken when he received his fellowship in the American College of Dentistry. Photo: Brad DeCecco
He had married his childhood sweetheart, fellow Wampanoag Barbara Blake Bearse, soon after high school. They remained close to their families in Mashpee and Hyannis, often jumping on the highway after his dental school classes to spend weekends on the Cape.

The year he graduated, Soliz entered the U.S. Air Force Dental Corps and was assigned to McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey. While he was completing a three-year internship, Soliz, who says he always needs to have a “hobby,” decided to build a motel in Mashpee that would welcome people of any color or nationality.

Even with his dental degree in hand, and a prosperous career in his future, Soliz was in danger of being held back by his Indian heritage. He bought a building that was slated for demolition—an old German prisoner of war mess hall from Otis Air Force Base—and had it moved to a piece of land he had acquired in Mashpee. He estimated he would need about $100,000 to turn the building into motel units. So he applied for a bank loan. He was rejected. He tried again, at four other banks, but was given a variety of excuses for why they wouldn’t finance the project.

“What I didn’t know at the time was that they had redlined the area, because the banks felt, and maybe rightfully so, that the Indians didn’t make enough money to pay them back,” Soliz says. ‘They should have said that, though.”

Instead, they let him go through the application process repeatedly.

He had no choice but to do the work on his own, window by window, door by door, even as he completed his Air Force service as a captain and started a teaching fellowship in pediatric dentistry at the Murray & Leonie Guggenheim Dental Clinic in New York City. What should have taken six months to finish took six years.

But La Plaza del Sol motor lodge would become a Mashpee fixture. Even when Soliz and his wife chose to settle in Rye Brook, N.Y., to start his dental practice in nearby Yonkers and to raise their five children near the educational and cultural advantages of New York City, they would return every summer to run the lodge and take part in the Wampanoag powwow.

A gentle and self-effacing man, Soliz downplays the fact that he was the first Mashpee Wampanoag to earn a doctoral degree. “It wasn’t that I did anything great,” he says. “It’s just that I decided to do it.”

‘Moral Outrage’

His book, however, is unswerving. As Soliz puts it, the book is “forcefully written, sometimes with a clarion call of moral outrage when trying to expose some of the dark roots of European-American arrogance.”

He writes that the subjugation of the Wampanoag began just a few years after the Mayflower landed in Eastham, Mass., in November 1620. The Wampanoag, who numbered 40,000 and whose territory ranged from Boston to Bristol, R.I., were the first Native Americans to greet the English settlers, and they shared their food and skills to help the white men and women survive.

But once the settlers found their footing, they began using military force to push the Indians onto smaller and smaller parcels of land. On Cape Cod, that meant a plantation marked by swamps and marshes. “They moved us to a piece of property that they would least want to use or keep—the worst piece of property on the Cape—and that happened to be Mashpee,” Soliz says.

Some Wampanoag adopted the Christianity practiced by the settlers. The missionaries resettled these Indians into “praying towns,” including one in Mashpee. Thus the first Bible ever written in the United States was a 1663 translation into Algonquin Wampanoag by a Puritan missionary. Mashpee was also the site of the first Indian church built in the United States, in 1673. Although the colonists used religion to subdue the Indians and submerge their traditions, it may have ended up preserving them in the conflict that was to come.

As the colonists became hungrier for land, tensions grew, until a bloody series of clashes known as King Phillip’s War erupted between the colonists and the Indians in 1675. The “praying Indians,” who were treated as traitors by other Wampanoag, but also shunned by the colonist forces, stayed largely neutral.

The war took thousands of lives and marked the end of a significant Indian presence in New England. Most of the 400 Wampanoag who survived and were not sold into slavery eventually moved or returned to Mashpee, although some remained on Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.

Soliz marvels that over the next centuries, the Mashpee Wampanoag remained largely intact as a community, still living on their ancestral land, despite their hardscrabble existence as paupers and wards of the state. Economic discrimination, including the banks’ redlining policies, kept the rate of economic growth in Mashpee the lowest of any incorporated community in Massachusetts, Soliz says. Today, less than half the tribe’s 2,000 members have a high school diploma, and half live at or below the poverty line.

The settlers’ plundering of America’s indigenous peoples continues to be widely ignored, Soliz says, and it is time to have the truth known, “so that we can take our rightful place in American society with full respect for our traditions and history.”

Part of that respect should include restitution from the U.S. government, Soliz says. If the Indians were fully compensated for what was taken from them, “it would bankrupt the country,” he says, “but the government could go on to the 275 substandard reservations throughout the United States and build professionally regulated and maintained hospitals and schools that would positively impact those tribes. That’s something they could do.”

Gambling on the Future

The late 20th century found the Mashpee Wampanoag under pressure again. All around them developers were buying up land to create idyllic seashore properties, until finally Mashpee itself was targeted. In 1976, the tribe filed a lawsuit against the town and the developers, claiming ownership of the town’s undeveloped land. They lost, partly on the grounds that they were not a federally recognized tribe. That set in motion a quest for federal recognition, an arduous process that did not come to fruition until 2007.

That was an enormous milestone, Soliz says, because it opened a channel to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a source of funding for education, health care and housing. But it also opened the door to a Pandora’s Box: the casino question.

Seeing that casinos had brought money and jobs for federally recognized tribes in Connecticut, the Mashpee tribal leadership began working with international financiers to lay the ground for their own resort casino in Massachusetts.

The tribe leadership is currently racing against a July 31 deadline set by the state to find a town that will host the resort, work with an investor to buy the land and put it into federal trust and come to an agreement with the governor on sharing profits with the state. At the same time, the tribe is trying to shake off the taint of corruption left from its previous leader, who was sentenced to three and a half years in prison for financial improprieties.

Soliz is not a fan of the casino proposal. Besides his concern that gambling can hurt families, he is not convinced that New England has the economic capacity for another casino, or that a gambling enterprise could improve the quality of life for the Wampanoag.

“The Indians are not the ones getting their pockets lined; it’s the investors,” something he understands from his own real estate ventures. The casino investors “are putting their money in, and they are going to want their return. I just don’t think it is something that will benefit the tribe as much as the tribal leaders are expecting,” he says.

Soliz points out that the tribe is already millions of dollars in debt to former and current casino investors, having put money into legal, lobbying and design efforts for a casino that is far from a done deal.

As his book strives to emphasize, the Wampanoag have more to offer than slot machines and black jack, both culturally and spiritually. “We judge people by their character rather than their wealth,” Soliz says. “We try not to jump to conclusions, but give reason its moment. And we try to avoid being led by our emotions,” he says. Indians also meditate, to establish inner balance and tranquility and eliminate worry, which Soliz calls “a feeling of defeat.”

Has he managed to eliminate worry for himself?

“Easier said than done, you know,” he replies.

These days, his worry is mainly for the future of the Wampanoag. Although education and career led him away from Mashpee, he has never lost his devotion to his people and their welfare. That is one reason the tribal medicine man gave him the Indian name Blue Duck. He flies off—but he always returns.

This article first ran in the Spring 2012 issue of Tufts Dental Medicine magazine.

Julie Flaherty can be reached at julie.flaherty@tufts.edu.

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