Tribe opens heritage exhibit

The wetu lookalike presents visitors to the Gay Head Cliffs in Aquinnah with Wampanoag culture, history and current projects.

The Wampanoag heritage exhibit includes interactive displays. — Photo by Nathaniel Horwitz

The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) welcomed tourists, tribal members, and Island residents on Friday to the grand opening of a heritage exhibit at one of the Gay Head cliff lots along the path to the popular scenic vantage point.

A one-room wetu, a traditional Wampanoag dwelling, is filled with furs, nets, and interactive displays. The tribe’s Natural Resources and Historic Preservation departments created the exhibit to display the history, culture, and present-day programs of the tribe.

The Friday morning celebration began with a smudging ceremony. Medicine man Jason Baird burned sage in and around the building. “It is to purify the space and welcome the people,” he told The Times.

Tribal chairman Tobias Vanderhoop thanked the tribal council, the Natural Resource Commission, and the contractors responsible for the wetu.

Natural Resources director Bret Stearns oversaw and coordinated the project. “It’s very exciting to be here, it’s been a long project,” he told visitors. “We started in 2011 when we went to the tribal council, the vision changed and it grew, and here we are today.”

The Environmental Protection Agency funded the exhibit with a grant of approximately $35,000. The tribe contributed another $35,000, Mr. Stearns said.

Tribal Historic Preservation officer Bettina Washington explained the significance of the exhibit. “This building has important elements of our culture,” she said. “Who the Wampanoag are, how we got here, and how we’re still here and what we’re doing.”

Visitors flowed through the building. They admired raccoon and skunk furs, brushed their fingers against a traditional fishing net and examined the displays, including an electronic, interactive kiosk in the corner.

The centerpiece of the wetu is a large floor tile that depicts a turtle crafted from stone and wampum, which represents the tribal concept that the world was created on the back of a turtle. Cultural Resource monitor Elizabeth James Perry created the tile. Tribal member Jason Widdiss used natural materials for the inlay. On the day of the opening, the turtle was wreathed in light from a skylight, representing the traditional smoke hole of a wetu dwelling.

“The doors are open, people are in, it’s great,” Mr. Stearns told The Times. “It’s easy to put up a building; it’s difficult to put up a culturally representative building.”

In a later conversation, Mr. Stearns said he encourages Islanders with old photographs or cultural artifacts to call his office at 508-645-9265 about putting them on display.  “We don’t just want it to be a one-time visit, we want to change the content so that residents and visitors can go there and enjoy it multiple times,” he said.

The exhibit will be open throughout the tourist season each year. “Now that it has been open for a few days it’s been incredibly well-received,” Mr. Stearns said. “People go in there and enjoy it and read the material, and I think it really provides a great destination.”