The Welches of Aquinnah

Most people think of wampum as the Native American form of money, but Berta and Vernon Welch of Aquinnah turn that old chestnut on its head. For the past ten years the Welches have worked as master jewelers, helping revive and modernize the ancient craft of wampum making. Their children Sophia, sixteen, and Giles, twenty, join them in the work, which takes a great deal of time and effort.

After he finishes his job as a land manager at the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank, Vernon harvests quahaug shells from Menemsha Pond at the end of Lobsterville Road. He and his son look for shells with the purple hue on their edges that are found only there. The Welches have a small studio adjacent to their home off State Road, where they grind and polish the colored parts of the shells to create the tiny beads or mosaic pieces that go into their jewelry, which is one of a kind.

Only a handful of Islanders make wampum jewelry, and the Welches sell theirs at Stony Creek Gifts, Berta’s shop at the Gay Head Cliffs. Active in the Wampanoag community, Berta serves as president of the new Aquinnah Cultural Center and has been instrumental in seeing it come into existence at the former Vanderhoop homestead. She also led a group of Aquinnah Wampanoags, including members of her family, in a project that made wampum inlays for the National Museum of the American Indian, which opened in Washington, D.C., in 2004.

The family jewelry-making tradition started with Berta’s parents, José and Bertha Giles. José grew up and apprenticed as a silversmith in Taxco, Mexico, a center for sterling silver. During the 1960s and 1970s, his Edgartown jewelry store specialized in the Aztec and Mayan silverwork he designed and made. Then Bertha started and ran Stony Creek Gifts at the Gay Head Cliffs. Now, Berta runs the store with her sister, Carla Cuch, an interior designer.

Long before wampum became a form of money traded with white settlers on the Island, it was made into gift belts recording tribal history. The belts were given to the tribe’s most esteemed members, who draped themselves in them.

“I am interested in wampum culturally,” Berta says. “I’ve always known wampum has an energy.” The unique purple color of Wampanoag wampum, she says, is especially good for healing.