Wampanoag heritage lives on
The sounds of traditional Indian drums and chanting will fill the Aquinnah air this Sunday as Wampanoag tribal members invite all Islanders to join in their annual Spring Social. Begun as a youth activity some 20 years ago, the yearly event is now a spring celebration for the entire community with colorful Wampanoag traditions at its heart.
"It's springtime, it's renewal, it's a time to come home," says Adriana Ignacio, who was instrumental in launching the social in the 1980s. She says that many tribal members who have left the Island return for the Spring Social.
Always held on the last Sunday of April, the occasion features a potluck feast and ample opportunity for socializing and catching up with friends and neighbors after the long winter. According to Ms. Ignacio, the sumptuous meal highlights traditional fare - quahog chowder, deer meat stew, corn bread, Bannock (known as fry bread in the southwest), fish, freshly picked watercress, and desserts made with cranberries and beach plums.
Everyone is invited to bring a home-cooked dish and eat his or her fill. "It's like a mini Pow Wow," Ms. Ignacio says.
Photo by Ralph Stewart
In recent years the social has taken place under a big tent at the Wampanoag tribal building on Black Brook Road. But two decades ago, the building did not exist and events were held at the Gay Head Town Hall or the schoolhouse, which is now the town's library.
Ms. Ignacio, daughter of a Gay Head Wampanoag mother and a Mexican father, grew up in Aquinnah, then called Gay Head, along with her two sisters, Berta (Welch) and Carla (Cuch), and brother, David Giles. She remembers early days when just about everyone in the town was Wampanoag. Families all knew one another and traditional culture was taken for granted, part of every home. "We never questioned who we were," she says.
Young children attended classes taught by Helen Manning in the town schoolhouse, only going down-Island to school when they reached junior-high age.
Remembering important traditions of her childhood, Ms. Ignacio recalls that then, as now, Cranberry Day, a major tribal celebration, was held on the first Tuesday of October. Children and adults made their way to the bogs at Lobsterville for a day of gathering cranberries and picnicking on the beach. Later in the afternoon families would head home to prepare food, gathering later for a community supper followed by festive music and dancing. "It would be a full day of socializing," she recalls.
Photo courtesy of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah)
As times changed tribe members dispersed to make their homes elsewhere on the Vineyard and some moved off-Island. Ms. Ignacio went to art school in Santa Fe, N.M., where she met and married her husband, Bruce, from a tribe in Utah. The couple now divide their time between Utah and Martha's Vineyard, but when they had school-aged children they moved back to Aquinnah year-round.
Ms. Ignacio began directing a program for native children aimed at helping them retain their culture and offering educational support. The program was funded by a grant from the United Sates Department of Indian Affairs. Known as the Title IV program, it sponsored classes in Gay Head for as many as 75 Wampanoag youth living in towns across the Island.
Classes focused on traditional arts and crafts, native cooking, singing and dancing. The first Spring Social was held to give the young people a chance to show the Wampanoag community the traditional skills they had been learning all year. But more than a program for youth and their parents, the social was a festive community-wide celebration for all.
"It was a big day of food, song, and dance. Members from other tribes would come from off-Island," says Ms. Ignacio. "It was a huge community effort."
The social drew people of all ages, including some older Wampanoags who shared stories about Cranberry Day and other traditions and even joined in the dancing. "It was an opportunity for all of us to remember who we were and where we came from," says Ms. Ignacio.
"It was nice how it really brought people together for a common interest," says her sister, Berta Welch. "I recall how nice it was to see all the children you might not have seen during the year. I think of how many elders have passed away since the social began. It's important that the children get to see the elders. The interchange, the sharing, is a very important part of it."
With the advent of the new tribal building in the early 1990s, Wampanoag culture finally had a permanent home. Classes for young people are now offered there, supported by tribal funding. Work is currently proceeding on a community building nearby, which will provide space for the social and other special events.
There have been many changes in Island's outermost town since the 1980s; even its name is different, but the custom of the Spring Social has remained. This Sunday, as they have on the last Sunday in April for 20 years, the young Wampanoags will take center stage at the celebration, proud to showcase all they have learned, keeping their heritage alive.
The Wampanoag Spring Social at the Tribal Reservation takes place at 12 noon this Sunday.