Wampanoag leader reaches the century mark


Beatrice Vanderhoop Gentry is looking forward to a party to celebrate her 100th year — not only because of the endurance record it denotes, but also because when she was growing up a Wampanoag child in Gay Head, she never had birthday parties. No one in her family did. “We were too poor for birthday presents,” she says. “We were happy to have Christmas and Cranberry Day.”

Her daughter Barbara Gentry told The Times that when in 1982 she and her sister, Joan Patadal, threw a party for their Uncle Earl’s 77th birthday, he wept and told them it was the first one he had ever had. This surprised Barbara and Joan, because their mother had always made sure that their birthdays were celebrated. Beatrice’s daughters, along with Joan’s daughter, Bea Patadal, are making sure that this Saturday’s celebration will be a grand one. It will be this Saturday at 2 pm at the Aquinnah Wampanoag Administration Building.

After graduating from Tisbury High School in 1928 and Framingham State Teachers College in 1932 and teaching for a year in Oak Bluffs, Beatrice began a distinguished career with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), teaching for many years at Fort Sill in Oklahoma. She was one of the first Native American teachers for the BIA. Initially she had to apply for the job as a white person, but in 1936 she received individual federal recognition as a Wampanoag, 51 years before the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) was federally recognized.

Beatrice was ahead of her time in many ways. During 1938 to 1964 she was a part of Indian education during the time when the BIA changed its basic policies to allow Indian children to learn about their own language and culture in school. Her daughter Barbara has recently read papers that her mother wrote during her years with the BIA, and reports that many of her mother’s ideas then are consistent with current movements to promote Indian culture and pride. “She taught us who we were,” Joan adds.

Years later, in 1982, Beatrice traveled with her daughters to Washington to appear before the Senate Indian Select Committee (Indian Affairs were not yet a standing committee of the Senate). A chance encounter with a Comanche man brought home how important their mother had been. A conversation discovered that Beatrice might have taught the man’s aunt at Ft. Sill. The next day, the man brought a message from his aunt. Beatrice had not only been her teacher, but an important influence in her life. “You were the first person who told me I could be anything I wanted to be,” was the message she sent. That story brings Barbara to tears.

Coming home to Gay Head

While at Ft. Sill, Beatrice met James Russell Gentry, a handsome young airman stationed nearby, who was the friend of the husband of a colleague. It was love at first sight, and they shortly married. James died in 1991. The growing family moved often during James’ military service, but Beatrice managed to keep teaching for the BIA. After James retired from the military in 1958, the couple and their three children began commuting from Oklahoma to Oak Bluffs for summers, where they ran a store that sold Indian and Mexican crafts. For 40 summers it was in business on Circuit Avenue (next to the present Linda Jean’s). Beatrice hopes that some of her old friends and customers from that store will see this article and come to her party.

In 1964, the family moved to the Vineyard year-round when Beatrice discovered that she could double her BIA salary by teaching at the Menemsha School in Chilmark. James wanted to live in Oak Bluffs, but Beatrice insisted on Gay Head, because it had always been a goal to bring her children home to the supportive Indian community she remembered. James bought her the house on State Road, a mile or so from the cliffs, which had been the home where her father, C. Adrian Vanderhoop, and his wife raised their nine children. Her father retired from the Coast Guard as a bosun’s mate.

Beatrice was a modern-day leader of the Wampanoag Tribe. From 1968 to 1970 she helped form the first tribal council — 17 members, one from each Wampanoag family in Gay Head — and was its first chairman. She was also chairman of the first Massachusetts Indian Commission since the 1870s. She once wrote, “The only way for Native American people to determine their destiny among the dominant white society is to make the necessary demands upon the education system of Indians and non-Indians alike: to provide an avenue to attain the goals that each society deems essential and demand respect for those values and cultures.” Even in her 80s, she went to Washington to testify at the Senate hearings that led to tribal recognition in 1987.

“It was her lifelong ambition,” Joan says, “to help Wampanoag people.”

Barbara adds softly, “In her dreams today, she still dreams about doing that.”

Today, Beatrice is not in great health. She has recently had a fall, which broke her shoulder, and she is recovering from pneumonia. She has trouble speaking, but there is a gleam in her eye when there is talk about the party. She remains proud of being a Gay Header. Perhaps unusual among tribe members today, she and her daughters are not fond of the town’s new name. “I was born a Gay Header,” she once said, “and I’ll die a Gay Header.” Over her bed her daughters have hung a small replica of the old town limit sign: “Entering Gay Head.”