Wampanoag Living

Some things have changed and some have stayed the same since 1987, when the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) became federally recognized.

Mark Widdiss passes down traditional songs and stories to children in 1982.
Peter Simon

The people and place of Aquinnah have always remained a mystery. We are still here and have been for thousands of years. We have struggled and maintained our American Indian heritage that we are so very proud of.

When I think back to growing up in Gay Head in the middle of the last century, I remember the wonderful sense of community. Everyone cared about and cared for one another, especially our elders whom we’ve always held in the highest esteem. We knew who we were – we were Gay Head Indians.

Our families were part of a close-knit community – one that fished together, traveled together, clothed and fed each other, danced together, learned together, and attended to politics together. We were a small community, the last one in the commonwealth to even receive electricity, which happened in February 1951. We knew how to survive and survived very well by assisting each other.

The old Gay Head Town Hall – which was built during the height of the Depression, at a time when we did not even have electricity or power tools – was a center of our community, where we joined together over the generations to participate in square dances, penny sales, wedding receptions, birthday parties, French and ballet lessons, and our ever-so-popular annual school play – usually performed at Christmas by the students of the one-room Gay Head School.

People struggled, and they helped each other. If someone had an extra striped bass, he would share it with someone who might not have the ability to go out and catch one. A family would give a bucket of quahaugs to another along the way. The abundance from gardens was divvied up. That part of our community is still evident today: to assist each other when necessary.

Winters were cold and barren at the westernmost end of the Vineyard. Everyone looked forward to the scallop season to keep going economically over the winter. If someone did not go scalloping, perhaps that person would be responsible for shucking – oh, the stories that circled around the shucking shacks.

In the seventies, there was a cultural enrichment program for the children, funded by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. There was not much funding available, but we made the most of what we did receive from the government. It is often said that we did more then with our tribal youth with less funds available. Children learned what life had been like in Gay Head over the generations. They went scalloping to learn how to drag for scallops and then how to shuck them; they traveled by boat to our neighboring island of Cuttyhunk; they learned how to do beadwork, to braid rugs, to pick beach plums, how to make jam and jelly, and how to harvest cranberries on Cranberry Day; and they learned to make pottery from the clay of the Cliffs (which is only accessible for tribal members). We encouraged the children to embrace and cherish their culture.

Federal acknowledgment

In 1972, the Gay Head Tribal Council Inc. was formed to pursue federal acknowledgement. Our late Chief Donald F. Malonson often stated it took the federal government more than $2 million to figure out who we were when we already knew who we were. It was a long process, but we persevered as a community and as a tribe. Initially we were denied acknowledgement, but then we presented the detailed records of the Community Baptist Church of Gay Head. They were the historic records the Bureau of Indian Affairs recognized to support our petition.

On April 10, 1987, our fifteen-year struggle ended and it was official. I wondered that day how it would change our lives.

To achieve such recognition, a tribe enters into a government-to-government relationship with the United States and receives financial assistance in the areas of health, education, human services, natural resources, housing, and administration. The tribe is overseen by a thirteen-member tribal council.

As a tribe, we have held many of our tribal lands in common. We now have approximately 475 acres of land held in trust by the United States government, which includes the face of our sacred Clay Cliffs, the Herring Creek, the cranberry bogs and parts of Lobsterville, and the land on which tribal housing rests, along with the administration and community buildings.

Membership is based on proving direct lineal descent to a specifically identified Gay Head Wampanoag on the 1870 census, also referred to as the Pease Report. In 1987 our membership stood at 525; today it is approximately 1,150. Tribal members reside in nearly every state and in Canada, and there are approximately 350 on Martha’s Vineyard, which the U.S. government has designated as the “primary service area,” thus members here are eligible for most government-issued benefits.

Living for free?

The general public perception of federal recognition is that we get everything for nothing, but that is not true. Some tribal members even subscribe to this way of thinking. Our tribe has been able to develop more programs and services, but most tribal members still work for a living.

The most widespread – and often misunderstood – program for tribal members across the country is education. Funding from the Bureau of Indian Affairs provides a small stipend for Wampanoag students attending college, and tribal members living anywhere in Massachusetts can attend state colleges and universities with a tuition waiver. But the students are responsible for additional costs such as housing, books, transportation, and other living expenses. (It is the same opportunity afforded veterans and children in foster care.) Many of our students receive scholarships from outside sources as well.

Since the federally recognized service area is Dukes County, some health services are provided for members who live on Martha’s Vineyard; this augments individual health insurance mandated by the commonwealth. Having Indian Health Services means better opportunities for receiving health care and dental services than in previous times, and we now have a greater awareness of the benefits of preventative medicine, healthy eating habits, and exercise.

We do benefit from wide-ranging environmental programs as well. For example, we now have a successful scallop- restoration program, which hopefully will provide a bounty in 2011, and the forestry program provides wood for tribal members who need it for heating during the winter.

A major change since federal acknowledgement is the centralized location of tribal buildings for offices and housing in Aquinnah. The administrative branch of the tribal government oversees the day-to-day planning and progress of programs. Offices are in the multi-purpose building that was completed in January 1994 and has served the community not only for tribal business but for socials and for family gatherings and celebrations. In April 2004 the tribe started to build a 6,500-square-foot community center adjacent to the tribal building. The timetable for completion is unclear, but it is anticipated that eventually it will house an elders’ center, a child-care center, a library, an arts-and-crafts room, and a full-size auditorium with a gymnasium for indoor sports.

The Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribal Housing Authority was created in the early years of recognition. The properties were cleared, cul-de-sacs were formed, and the first homes were ready for occupancy in 1995. All thirty-three homes in tribal housing are affordable housing and about one-third are mutual-help homes, which means rent-to-own homeowners have a ninety-nine-year lease of the land. Rental rates are based on a percentage of adjusted gross income.

The housing mostly brought families from off-Island and down-Island that had not resided in Gay Head for generations. The housing units range in size from one to four bedrooms and most were designed to represent our historic wetu, which is a circular, thatched building, with bent saplings as the mainstay, a bark outer-layer, and a dome-shaped roof. Nearly one hundred people reside in tribal housing; for many families, it’s been a stepping stone for a few years before moving to other housing on-Island. Partly due to tribal housing, the Town of Aquinnah leads in the commonwealth, with about 25 percent of available housing considered affordable.

It may seem odd but even though there is a built-in community on tribal lands, there is not the community spirit everyone had hoped for in the building of the housing units, as not everyone participates in cultural events. Perhaps federal acknowledgement wasn’t a panacea. In many ways, it has polarized us.

Sharing a culture

We are very fortunate to have been residing on our beloved island of Noepe for more than ten thousand years. Our oral traditions and legends have been passed down from generation to generation by our most revered tribal elders who are our wisdom keepers – our ancestors have left us with a rich culture and heritage that we in turn pass along to our descendants.

One of our oldest legends is that of Moshup, our giant who created the Vineyard and surrounding areas with his greatness and formed many historic sites simply with his toe. The legend has been performed in a pageant that began in the late 1940s. Once held at the Cliffs with a short torch-lit walk down the hill to Devil’s Den, now (due to erosion) the pageant is held at the natural amphitheater outside the tribal building.

There has been a revival of cultural programs (mostly for tribal members), including learning regalia design, weaving, beadwork, pottery, drumming, and dance. Some events and activities are just for tribal members; others are open to the general public, including the annual powwow and Spring Social. In 2005, the Tribal Youth Group brought back the powwow, which had not been celebrated in Aquinnah for seventy-five years, and the last Sunday in April is the Spring Social – a day of celebration signifying the arrival of spring with dancing, drumming, singing, and a potluck social.

Cranberry Day, for the last harvest of berries in the fall, has consistently been our biggest celebration of the year. A hundred years ago, our ancestors would pack up their oxen carts and head to the bogs, camping out for a week. They would gather the wild cranberries in abundance and send them off-Island to New Bedford, New York City, and Boston. The celebration then went from a week down to a three-day event; today it is celebrated on the second Tuesday of October.

The cranberry agent declares the berries fit for harvesting and the fifty or so people in attendance begin: Some pick the berries by hand, some use wooden scoops – I still have two that belonged to my great-grandfather. It’s like a family reunion, with lunch around a campfire. We cap the day with a potluck social in the evening that includes the general public.

After more than ten thousand years, the Aquinnah Wampanoag are still here, on the western shore of Martha’s Vineyard. We remain one of few American Indian tribes to have stayed on ancestral lands. We appreciate the assistance provided by the United States government and we are still striving for economic self-sufficiency as a tribe. We honor the memory of our ancestors who have gone before us, and we will continue to honor our cultural traditions and celebrate our community on our beloved Noepe.