MASHPEE – Joan Tavares-Avant is the Deer Clan Mother of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe. Her native name is Granny Squannit and a large tattoo on her right forearm shows an image of the legendary tribal medicine woman. But Avant is known as “the turtle lady,” for her love of the quiet creatures.
On Saturday, Avant, 73, was one of 12 Mashpee homeowners who were recipients of The Big Fix, a one-day community service project organized by Housing Assistance Corporation in which more than 250 volunteers helped with home and yard work at the residences of income eligible senior citizens, veterans and disabled homeowners.
Sitting in her cozy kitchen, Avant was enjoying the help.
“It’s so rewarding. It’s like medicine, to get your space cleaned up. Being limited and to have people come out and dig in is remarkable. It’s honorable and I appreciate everything,” she said.
Paul Fowler, who works in the energy department at Housing Assistance, was the Big Fix team leader for Avant’s house. On his punch list was a list of jobs like repairing the back steps, painting the front steps and the shed and creating a handicapped ramp.
Fowler reported work on Avant’s house was smooth. “I definitely have the best group,” he said of his volunteers, about an hour into the four-hour project.
As a kind of thank you to the volunteers, Avant decided to cook one of her signature dishes because “I want to give back. I don’t have money but, me, I’ll feed ‘ya. I can make a pot of something in an hour just to keep people going. “
So, as a dozen volunteers were cleaning her yard and painting her deck, she was inside chopping squash and onions for Three Sisters Rice to serve to the volunteers.
A tribal elder, former tribal historian and author, Avant lives at Lakeside Estates, a trailer park off Route 151 in Mashpee.
Avant grew up in Mashpee on Lovells Lane around the corner from the home of her grandparents, George and Mabel Pocknett Avant. Mabel Avant, who died in 1964, had been the tribal historian for many years. George and Mabel Avant’s home is now the Mashpee Wampanoag Museum.
As a child, Joan Avant said, she spent hours exploring the area and learning about nature from her tribal elders.
“I knew all the medicines and flowers,” she said. They caught herring and frogs in the pond to use as food. “We survived from the woods, the berries. Every berry that was out there we used,” she said.
She learned cooking from her mother, Octavia. She recalls seeing her mother making gingerbread and watching it rise in the oven until the bread puffed over the edge of the pan.
“I couldn’t understand what made it rise. I thought it was alive,” she said. That fascination with cooking has stayed with her all her life.
She moved away to Boston for a number of years but always stayed connected to the tribe, coming back to Mashpee on weekends and eventually moving back full-time. She has lived at Lakeside Estates for 12 years.
For Avant, Mashpee is and always will be home. “This is our original land. I’d feel terrible if I wasn’t here.”
Avant said her goal as tribe historian is to spread the stories of the tribe so they are not forgotten.
“We’ve been omitted from a lot of literature,” she said. “I want to make sure people get that type of information. We’re still here. We’ve got a real wonderful history. Our ancestors taught us a lot and we’ve tried to follow their ways. One way is to tell the stories passed down for generations. That’s one way to connect the dots,” she said.
Besides being a mother of one of the tribe’s seven clans, Avant is a commissioner with the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Housing Commission and is a past Tribal Council president.
Beginning in 1980, she worked for 26 years as the Director of Indian Education for the Mashpee public school system, a federally-funded position where she taught generations of Native Americans and other students the history and culture of the tribe.
“I taught them everything I know,” she said.
After retirement, she kept writing and also kept up with her other vocation, catering.
She worked for years as a caterer, attending Native American powwows along the eastern seaboard. Her favorite thing to make was homemade quahog chowder.
But on Saturday morning during The Big Fix, she made her Three Sisters Rice, which contains corn, beans and squash. She combines that with jag, a rice and beans dish. It is a dish she also made when she was on the powwow circuit. She pointed out it marries her two heritages, Wampanoag and Cape Verdean.
A columnist for The Mashpee Enterprise, she compiled those columns about tribe history into a book, “People of the First Light,” published in 2010. She donated many of the books to schools among other places.
Her fondness for turtles goes back to when she was a girl, for their longevity and their slow but steady determination. She collects them and a variety of turtle images on wall hangings and on tables are prominent around her home.
A large concrete turtle sits near the entrance to her house, and her daughter gave her a live turtle, which lives in a terranium near her front door. His name is Snickers.
Avant has five children, though one has predeceased her. She has four grandchildren and three great grandchildren.
“They are all so special,” she said.
As she chopped squash for the stew, she said, “My left hand is not what it used to be but I don’t make it a problem.” She prefers to stick to the positive.
She also likes to keep busy. “I never get bored and I don’t want to get bored,” she said.
Her writing is one thing that keeps her busy. “It’s very fulfilling. I worked so hard to preserve the heritage, to help our people economically and get grants. Before the federal recognition it was tough. We’ve come a long way now. Nothing’s easy. You have to work at it,” she said.
And she continued to chop squash, as the onions sizzled on the stove behind her.
– Laura M. Reckford