Calendar Challenge: "We don't have a word for religion"

Linda Coombs speaks on the spiritual beliefs of the Wampanoag.

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Linda Coombs, Wampanoag cultural educator, speaks to a congregation at the Unitarian Universalist chapel in Vineyard Haven about the tribe's belief system. — Photo by Keya Guimarães

Each week there is a plethora of cultural events to take advantage of around the Island, and we’d love to hear what you chose from the local Calendar listings. Maybe it’s attending an educational talk, watching a nostalgic movie or trying a new sport or craft you’ve always thought about. Whatever it is, we challenge you to do it and share it with us at calendar@mvtimes.com.

When I saw that aqua sky and bright sunrise from my Chilmark perch on Sunday morning, I resisted getting in the car to drive down-Island and sit inside a warm church. Yet as soon as Linda Coombs began speaking, I knew I was in the right place.

“We don’t have a word for religion. We have a way of life, a way of being,” said Ms. Coombs, Wampanoag cultural educator, to the congregation gathered at the Unitarian Universalist chapel on Main Street in Vineyard Haven.

Immediately addressing the misconception that her people were polytheistic, which Ms. Coombs attributed to “someone on the outside looking in and trying to label what they saw,” she said, “I hope to make it clear today that we believe in essentially one creator, and this creator made the universe and gave spirit to everything inside — trees, rocks, mosquitos, water, and human beings.”

She explained that from the Wampanoag perspective, everything on earth was imbued with a living force, a life of its own, and with that life came instructions for living. Ms. Coombs pointed out, “This is the natural law that keeps everything in balance, and everyone has followed their original instructions, except of course, us, the human beings. And we can see what that is doing to the planet.”

From this simple, yet enlightened, foundation of belief, the indigenous way of life, perceptions, ceremony, and actions were constructed. Ms. Coombs said, “Through observation of natural cycles and the environment, the method of living was derived; and through ceremony, we were reminded how to stay on the right path.”

As sunshine and shadow moved through the stained-glass chapel, Ms. Coombs, swaying between humor and wisdom, articulated how the profound belief system of the indigenous people was constructed to keep the earth in balance. It was a beautiful day, inside and out, and after her service, I was set to cherish every moment; as Ms. Coombs gently reminded us, “Think about where you set your foot, and walk with respect.”