After years of neglect, the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) has begun to pay attention to the historic Mayhew Chapel and adjacent Indian burial ground on Christiantown Road in West Tisbury. This effort is welcome and long overdue.
For years, the burial ground was lost in a tangle of briars, brush and poison ivy. In recent months, tribal workers have begun clearing brush from around the simple stones that mark the burial sites of the first Native American converts to Christianity.
In a story published this week, Bettina Washington, Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) historic preservation officer, told reporter Steve Myrick that once the landscape is clean the tribe will attend to the condition of the Mayhew Chapel, named for Thomas Mayhew Jr., the first minister to Christianize any of the indigenous peoples of New England, beginning in 1643.
Set on less than one acre, the grounds are all that remain of the “one mile square given by Sachem Josias for a praying town for Indian converts to Christianity.” Their descendants constitute the oldest continuously existing community of Christian Native Americans.
Prior to November 1993, when Dukes County and not the tribe owned the building, elder members of the tribe regularly welcomed visitors to the chapel, which also was used for weddings and other events in keeping with the character of the building and its pastoral surroundings.
More than 25 years ago, Wenonah Silva, former president of the Wampanoag tribal council, lectured each summer Sunday on tribal history at the Christiantown chapel. A plaque outside the chapel directed visitors to the burial ground and a nearby wildflower sanctuary.
The chapel now sits sad and forlorn in appearance, its roof and window sills rotting, paint flaking inside and out. Ms. Washington told The Times that the tribe would like to have the chapel open this summer. The long-term goal is to have the chapel open and staffed by tribal members on weekends.
Deeds, not words, are long overdue from a tribe that has often opined about the value of its cultural heritage, yet has allowed this important place to deteriorate.
One year ago November, Tobias Vanderhoop, former tribal administrator, was elected chairman of the approximately 1,200 member tribe. Asked about the condition of the Mayhew Chapel in an interview prior to the election, Mr. Vanderhoop told The Times, “I am embarrassed by it and saddened by it.”
Mr. Vanderhoop said the tribe needed to do better. We agree and we are happy work has begun.
In that same interview, Mr. Vanderhoop commented on the unfinished community center on tribal land in Aquinnah, which outside investors, with the tribe’s blessing but not the state’s, want to turn into a “boutique casino.”
Mr. Vanderhoop said he had heard from many members that the tribe needed a place where young and old can gather. If elected, he said, “One way or another, that building is going to be completed.”
The community center shell was erected in the summers of 2004 and 2005 by Air Force reservists from Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama. In all, over six weeks, three squadrons of approximately 20 reservists in civil engineering groups worked on the project.
The 6,200-square-foot structure, erected at taxpayer expense, was to include a gymnasium, kitchen facilities, and meeting space. The fact that nine years later the building sits empty and unused is an insult to the citizen soldiers who built it and undermines the respect that this sovereign nation demands and expects.
Tisbury takes a toll
Not surprisingly, as they have for years, Tisbury selectmen Tuesday voted to dun the town’s non-resident property owners and keep in place the residential exemption under which qualified year-round residents get a break on their property tax bills at the expense of their non-resident neighbors.
No other Island town imposes this inherently unfair policy that is in place in only 13 other municipalities in the state.
The underlying logic is that we year-rounders are under some sort of hardship because after all, we have to live on Martha’s Vineyard all year and tend the place until the seasonal swells return. And as we all know, it is expensive to live here.
Of course, it is less expensive than it might be if our seasonal neighbors had to pay for many of the municipal services they do not use, beginning with Tisbury school costs, $9.5 million in 2015. Or decided to be less generous to the many Island nonprofits that they support.
A total of 1,045, or approximately one-third of the town’s 2,906 property owners, benefit from the discount. There is no question that some residents have trouble making ends meet. And that taxes continue to increase for all of us. But pitting voters who benefit from the tax exemption against non-voters who must pay for it, is inherently unfair.
Some towns have senior work-off programs that allows elderly residents to shave their tax bill. There are towns on the Cape that impose a permit fee on weekly rental properties. Tisbury leaders ought to do better for all the town’s residents.