Tom Dresser tells history of Martha’s Vineyard Wampanoags


“The Wampanoag Tribe of Martha’s Vineyard: Colonization to Recognition,” Thomas Dresser, The History Press, Charleston, S.C., May 2011. 190 pp., $19.99 softcover. Available at Island bookstores and libraries.

This seems to be the year of Wampanoag history on the Island.

Tiffany Smalley becomes Harvard University’s second Wampanoag graduate. Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck was the first, in 1655.

And Tom Dresser’s new history of the Island’s Wampanoag people sits with Geraldine Brooks’ acclaimed new historical novel, “Caleb’s Crossing,” (May 3, 2011, in the front right window of Bunch of Grapes Bookstore in Vineyard Haven.

Mr. Dresser’s work is neither a novel nor is it likely to be as acclaimed as Ms. Brooks’ story of the same cultural collision in 17th century New England, but both books tell us what happened here after 1602 when Bartholomew Gosnold settled briefly on Cuttyhunk.

For his part, Mr. Dresser has written a wonderful, straightforward account of the life and times of the Island’s native inhabitants, now called the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), who got here first, about 10,000 years ago.

It’s a fascinating, often uncomfortable account of the meeting of two tribes, indigenous people and English settlers who brought their culture, mores, needs, and greed to this new place, this new England. Mr. Dresser’s micro lens zooms in on the happenings on our tiny Island over a 400-year period, from the early 1600s to U.S. recognition of tribal sovereignty in 1987.

His findings, alas, nearly mirror the macro image of events in the larger Massachusetts Bay Colony described by Nathaniel Philbrick in “Mayflower,” a 2006 national award-winner about the first 55 years of the colony.

Mr. Dresser did his homework. His index and bibliography cite dozens of sources, including 300-year-old accounts of the period, including the musings of several generations of Mayhews, and an insightful look at culture clash provided by William S. Simmons’ 1986 book, “Spirit of the New England Tribes.”

Here’s the beauty part of the Dresser book. This isn’t dusty, impersonal history. It’s an ongoing story. We’re connected to these people of 400 years ago. We know Jerry Jeffers. We’ve seen Jeremy Mayhew’s film work and heard Kate sing. Brian Athearn regularly bails us out of computer hell.

Mr. Dresser has done a masterful job of organizing 400 years of local history into a dozen well-designed chapters that explain our history that I’ve arranged, for the purpose of this review, in three phases:

What it was like here: Daily living, the culture, and spiritual life for 10,000 years before European contact. Mr. Dresser explains the native belief system and the impact of Christian religion that morphed uber-hero Moshup from a beneficent icon into two separate Good and Evil beings.

What happened: Basically the history of bad behavior by English settlers via disease, land-grabbing, bullying, and the occasional foray into neighborliness. We like the present day descendants of those early settlers but be assured there were plenty of rough cobs among them in the early days. You will learn for example, that Middle Line Road in Chilmark is so named because several hundred years ago it drew a line (soon overrun by settlers) that demarcated English land from native land.

What it’s like now: The successful effort to gain sovereignty, to rebuild the Wampanoag language skills, and teach it to the next generation. Ironically, much of the source material for reclamation of Wopanaak, the native tongue, came from a translation of the Bible by an early missionary Mayhew into Wopanaak to enable the Christian conversion process.

The book offers two great values to me as a reader. First, a concise way to learn the history of the native people and by extension, the development of our modern-day Island society. Second, it is loaded with unexpected nuggets, such as the Bible translation above, that explain things we may only vaguely know.

For example, I see the little Baptist church in Aquinnah and think it’s sort of charming. What I didn’t know is that the Baptist faith drew native people to it and replaced the Calvinist fire and brimstone version of Christianity.

The Baptist dogma succeeded because ironically, the preachers preached in the native tongue, which had fallen out of use. Also, because the religion’s view of a relationship with a creator was more amenable to the pantheistic spiritual belief system of the Wampanoags. As a result, the little church, founded in 1693, is the oldest of its kind in continuous service in the country.

Mr. Dresser also spent a lot of time interviewing descendants of the Wampanoag people, whose time-tested oral tradition provides exquisite detail and continuity to their story and insures their voices are heard clearly.

Author’s Talks with Tom Dresser, Friday, June 17, 10–11:30 am, Oak Bluffs Senior Center. Free.

Wednesday, July 15, 11 am–12:30 pm, Oak Bluffs Library. Free. 508-693-9433.

Jack Shea, of Vineyard Haven, is a regular contributor to The Times.