History, tradition and community
It is sometimes difficult to believe that Tobias Vanderhoop, the recently hired Tribal Administrator of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), wasn't always here. Born in Boston on July 15, 1974, he attended public schools in Everett, but came to the Island - Noepe, its Native American name - every summer, absorbing his community's culture, its history and its passions.
Mr. Vanderhoop is a natural teacher, a gifted storyteller, performer, and a historian with a seemingly unquenchable thirst for learning.
He graduated this past June from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government with a master's degree in public administration - the first Aquinnah Wampanoag to earn a degree from Harvard since Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck in 1665 - and a couple of weeks later was offered the job as Tribal Administrator. He describes his reaction as, "over the moon."
Mr. Vanderhoop's family is paramount to him: his mother, Lorraine Fawn Fantasia, father, Edward Fantasia, and three siblings - Eddie, Thomas, and Elsie - who live in Aquinnah, and his grandparents, Edwin D. Vanderhoop and Gloria Fisk, of Edgartown.
He says, "Growing up in an extended family as I did, both in Everett and on the Island, definitely contributes to my sense of Tribe today. You didn't want for anything; we all shared what we had. Tribal families understand it because that's how it is."
It wasn't always easy communicating his identity outside his Island community. Mr. Vanderhoop remembers his off-Island elementary school teacher dismissing him as having a "vivid imagination" when he told her he was an American Indian. It wasn't until she saw a picture of him in a 1981 People magazine article, "Spotlight on the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head," that she relented.
In his middle school years Mr. Vanderhoop kept written verification of Tribal enrollment to show those who questioned his origins. "It isn't something I would ever do today; I just didn't have the tools then to stand strong as I do now; I didn't know how to make them see that I wasn't trying to be anyone but who I am. " Who he is - heritage - has never been a passive matter.
Photo by Ralph Stewart
After high school, Mr. Vanderhoop moved to Aquinnah to live with his Island family, and work for the Tribe. "That first summer was a great one," he says. "I went to work at the Aquinnah Shop doing a little of everything. It was a right of passage. At summer's end when everything closed down I got work in the Tribe's health department.
"Eventually I worked in every single department. There wasn't anybody I didn't work for, which laid a great foundation. It gave me the chance to understand what each department does." He smiles and adds, "It was like if you're trying to get across a river and there happens to be a series of stones, you just hop from one to the next."
In 1996, as part of the Tribe's education department Mr. Vanderhoop was able to pursue learning about Wampanoag history and culture. "I got a fever for that because I got tired of being sent to deal with the tourists who would come into the Tribal building asking questions I couldn't answer," he says. "I was tired of saying 'I don't know.' I still have to say I don't know sometimes, but it's a lot less these days!"
One stepping stone at a time.
It was while he was in the Education Department that University of Massachusetts Boston contacted the Tribe to help develop the career track program that creates flexible work opportunities for people who attend school to develop career skills.
Mr. Vanderhoop himself participated in the program from 1996 to 1998, working towards his degree at UMass. It seemed he found time to do all that was important to him and to the Tribe: running school programs for the Boston Children's Museum in 1997; forming the Native Ed Company in partnership with Laura Consolazio to provide outreach programs for teachers and students, and in 1999, serving on the Tribal Council.
"Each person has a different gift; in our community everyone has a role," Mr. Vanderhoop says. "If you want to know about fishing, you ask 'Who should I ask about fishing?' There are many elders whom you go to and get whatever you need. That's how it was in my life. I found myself with these people and I'm honored they shared so much with me. Now I share it as much as I can when it's appropriate."
But a choice had to be made. At that time, the policy was that no one could work full time for the Tribe and sit on the Council. Mr. Vanderhoop kept his council seat and became a consultant, working part time presenting programs at the Martha's Vineyard Museum, the Peabody Essex Museum, New Bedford Whaling Museum, Alaskan Native Heritage Center, Plimoth Plantation, Bishop Museum of Hawaii, the American Indian Museum in Washington, D.C., and others. As part of the ECHO program (Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization), he traveled regularly beyond the confines of the Island. "Everything happens for a reason." Mr. Vanderhoop says with an infectious laugh.
And still, there was a bachelor's degree in community planning and management to finish (he graduated in 2005), thoughts of graduate school, and how to earn a living. He says, "I was in my third term on Tribal Council wondering where do I go from here? Those 'stones in the river' started popping again; I needed to refocus and decide how to keep climbing. I had hit a plateau."
And quietly, he made a decision.
"I told very few people I had applied to Harvard," he says, remembering how he received an e-mailed letter of acceptance after a day of working in the pond at the hatchery. "My mother was the first one I told, and the whirlwind started from there."
He began his studies in Cambridge in 2007.
"Probably the most fulfilling part was having my novice understanding of the way politics are supposed to work validated. I like to be involved in politics, but I also like to stand on the side and analyze who the players are and their motives based on the moves they are making; it's sort of like watching a game board," he says.
Elected to the Aquinnah Cultural Council, Tobias has been instrumental in the revitalization of the Edwin Devries Vanderhoop Homestead. He enthusiastically serves as vice president.
All this and he continues to find time to drum with the Black Brook Singers, to sing, dance, and tell Native American stories. He weaves baskets while watching Red Sox or Patriots games, once in a while even playing softball. And he learns.
"I haven't stopped learning yet. I hope that I can do the best I can do in this job, that people can actually see that what I am doing is for the benefit of the community. The worst thing for someone sitting in this position would be for people to think you're doing it for yourself. Everything flows from what our Tribal Council thinks the community needs and they trust me to implement their vision for the Tribe."
Mr. Vanderhoop adds, "I want to put an invitation out there for all folks: If you have an interest in knowing more about what goes on up here with Wampanoag of Aquinnah, let us know. Our dream is that people understand us. We're here. Come find us."
Lynne Whiting is a teacher and community activist.