A land lost but a culture rebuilt

The Chappaquiddick Tribe of the Wampanoag keeps its community ties.




Margaret Oliveira flutters her wrist, holding a fan made from feathers. The fan pulls smoke from a burning bundle of cedar and sage she holds in her other hand. An ocean breeze wafts an ashy scent onto the clothing and skin of the Wampanoag descendants who gathered Friday morning at the Chappaquiddick Tribe Burial Grounds for their Annual Gathering.

“I welcome all of you coming back home, visiting and from far away,” Ms. Oliveira said. “My native name is Social Butterfly.”

Walking from person to person, Ms. Oliveira cleanses the bodies and auras — a smudging ceremony intended to bring positive energy, a smoke bath. Crouching, she reaches eye-level with a young girl.

“I like your sweater,” she whispers. And the young girl twirls into the smoke.

Ms. Oliveira said smudging feels spiritual, so she waves the burning bundle, trying to encase their whole bodies. “It just feel natural,” she said.

They create a circle in the shade provided by the leafy overhanging branches. Fingers intertwined, the circle breaks to welcome late arrivals. Some traveled from across the country to stand hand in hand with their distant cousins — many of whom they’ve never met.

Sachem (chief) Alma Gordon, also known as White Sky, waves a talking stick. “Usually we like to go around, introduce ourselves,” Ms. Gordon said. She walks across the grass to an older woman sitting in a wheelchair: “I’ll start with Barbara because she’s the elder.”

The Wampanoag Chappaquiddick Tribe survives as one of the four tribes with ancestral roots on Martha’s Vineyard, alongside Aquinnah, Christiantown, and Deep Bottom. Wampanoag means “the people of the first light” — the first in North America to see the sunrise on the Eastern side of the continent.

There were few more than can fit in a small classroom, and the declining health of one elder kept a large family home, leaving numbers dwindling compared with recent years. But about 500 Chappaquiddick Tribe relatives are scattered across the United States, and a handful reside in other countries.

“There’s people that come for their first time each year — this year one guy came from New Mexico,” Ms. Oliveira said. “We had a family several years before come all the way from Hawaii.”

They commit their morning to connecting with their roots, but it serves as only a fleeting moment of preservation for their fractured culture. Among several Wampanoag tribes on Island, only Aquinnah has federal recognition.

Perspectives vary on how beneficial federal recognition is for a tribe, but ever-present are concerns about further dismantling their heritage. Without recognition, the tribe lacks a localized space to provide education about the history of their families — they have no land.

“At one point, my great great great grandmother had 42 acres in the north neck area, and we have nothing now,” Ms. Oliveira said.

She explained that without a space to educate, especially the younger generations, preserving sacred traditions only gets harder. Chappaquiddick Wampanoag can bring family and friends to the Aquinnah Museum. But a museum dedicated to a nearby tribe does not compare to a museum dedicated to the nuances of their own tribe’s history.

“It’s a topic that not many people know much about — and I know that as far as the Martha’s Vineyard natives, people always think of Aquinnah, and don’t realize there were the Chappaquiddick, Christiantown, and people lived at Deep Bottom too,” Ms. Gordon said. “So people are new to the fact that we had a reservation on Chappaquiddick.”

The tribe once inhabited the entire Chappaquiddick Island. In 1788, Europeans pushed about 3,000 natives into a small section, leaving them with one-fifth of what they once had, forced to cultivate food on infertile, sandy soil.

By 1869, natives were granted full citizenship, and with that action went their special status, effectively eliminating their communal land holdings. Ten reservations were possessed by the state, and their newfound citizenship under the Enfranchisement Act left the native community scattered, landless, and in search of employment off-Island. Those repercussions are still felt today.

Only two families from the tribe live on Island.

“It’s hard because everybody is scattered about and there’s not a lot of Chappaquiddick Wampanoag on Chappaquiddick — they had to leave for jobs,” Ms. Oliveira said.

At the Chappaquiddick Community Center, Ms. Gordon unrolls a sheet of paper stretching longer than her body — a family tree beginning with their first known ancestor named Elizabeth.

The tribe conducted a naming ceremony, giving native names to adults who had never attended and children who were too young to participate.

A young boy named Jeremiah traveled around the circle, introducing himself as Smiling Bear.  

“People chose their names, but we make suggestions,” Ms. Gordon said. “There’s usually some quality about them.”

She said her name White Sky came to her in a dream — a repeating phrase she heard in her sleep, years before she participated in her own naming ceremony.

“With people traveled all this way to be here with us today, and the people who traveled here locally, it’s such a blessing to be here today,” said Ms. Gordon. “It’s just a blessing that we are here.”

Editor’s note: story updated to reflect the correct relative of Ms. Oliveira who owned land on north neck.