Juli Vanderhoop and her native ancestors are as much a part of Aquinnah as the red clay cliffs that characterize the unique landscape.
Going back thousands of years, the Wampanoag people have lived in Aquinnah (originally called Gay Head). Today, Vanderhoop and her family continue many of the ancient practices that have withstood the test of time.
No matter where she goes in the world, Vanderhoop said, Aquinnah calls to her, beckoning her to come back home. “I have always felt a very strong sense of belonging here, no matter how far I stray,” Vanderhoop said.
After being born in Aquinnah and growing up there, Vanderhoop eventually moved to the Cape, where she lived for 15 years and worked as a flight teacher and certified commercial pilot.
She had two children and was content with her life, until she became very ill with a range of symptoms that she could not explain, nor could her doctors.
“The doctors at Brigham and Women’s wouldn’t operate on me. They said, ‘Your body won’t allow you to go into surgery,’ which was really scary for me,” Vanderhoop said.
After a while, Vanderhoop knew she needed to return to her home of homes in Aquinnah. She wanted to introduce her children into the loving and supportive community, and felt an ardent longing to go back to her roots.
Upon setting foot on Aquinnah soil, Vanderhoop said she immediately felt relief from the excruciating symptoms she had been battling for so long. “When I came back home, I immediately felt better. All my symptoms were gone — I felt like a new person,” Vanderhoop said.
Vanderhoop said she can’t explain the scientific reason for the absence of her ailments after moving back home, but she said, “This land breathed life right back into me; there is definitely a deep spiritual connection I have to everything that exists here.”
When she returned to Aquinnah, Vanderhoop found a community that had changed drastically from what she remembered when she was younger.
The town and the tribe were pitted against each other — arguments over land use and other rights for native peoples polarized the small town. Vanderhoop sought to alter the relationship between the town and the tribe by bringing people together and advocating for people without a voice.
“When I came back, the community was in tatters in arguments between the town and the tribe,” Vanderhoop said. “That wasn’t the type of environment I wanted to exemplify for my children.”
Before moving back to the Island, Vanderhoop visited some family members in Germany and took a tour of Europe.
While she was away, she noticed how people interacted when they sat down to eat dinner every night. “It was the part of the day that everyone was waiting for,” Vanderhoop said. “I joined a family of six for dinner one night — everyone played their part in putting together this wonderful meal.”
After the meal was arranged, Vanderhoop said, the feelings of pride and togetherness were palpable. There were no arguments or disagreements, just good food and good company.
The meal reminded her of when she was a child, when her large family had similar gatherings. “People from Aquinnah knew how to help each other, and through the help they gave, there was that extension of home,” Vanderhoop said.
After getting back from her European excursion and heading for the Vineyard, Vanderhoop knew that she had to establish a carefree community center where anyone could come to chat and enjoy themselves.
She crafted her wood-fired oven, and started up her renowned bakery, the Orange Peel Bakery. There she would host pizza nights, where neighbors would come after long days of working outside, to warm their bodies and their spirits.
“I created my wonderful oven and my bakery, and I established pizza night around that incredible feeling of family and togetherness,” Vanderhoop said.
Around that time, she also decided to get involved in town governance and to become an active member of the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe.
“As a woman that was born and raised here, I feel that there is a voice to my community that was missing when I stepped up to becoming a member,” Vanderhoop said.
She was elected to the Aquinnah selectmen, and became an even more active participant in her hometown government.
As a baker, a tribe member, and a selectman, Vanderhoop said, she plays a unique role in town. Many of the values she upholds in her various facets of community involvement were imparted to her by those who came before her. “I am so connected with my roots. My stepfather, who was the tribal medicine man, imparted to me many of life’s great philosophies — be kind and giving, work hard, and never lose touch of who you are,” Vanderhoop said.
But according to Vanderhoop, not everyone has such unselfish and conscientious thoughts. “I have seen the beauty of this Island decline,” she said. “We are caught up too much in materialism, but people don’t realize that it doesn’t matter what you have monetarily, you need to feed your soul with something.”
One day, years after she fired up her oven for the first time, a woman entered Vanderhoop’s shop and began to peruse as she was busy crafting handmade dough for her decadent pastries. The woman turned to Vanderhoop and said, “I can’t believe it, I came here to find you, and here you are.”
At first, she didn’t recognize the woman in her shop, but soon determined that she had come in seven years before to buy some baked goods.
The woman continued, “There was no sign, but I saw your oven and felt drawn here, I knew this was the place.”
Experiences like these, Vanderhoop said, are what make her bakery a truly magical place.
For her, the more people gathered around the dinner table, the better. “In the wintertime, this bakery is all we have — it’s my little corner of warmth and family,” she said.
In the future, Vanderhoop hopes that her children continue to find comfort in their native land, and never forget where they came from.
“We want to carry the blessing of our ancestors forward,” Vanderhoop said. “You can hear those blessings in how the wind blows, how the sound of the ocean is always present. This land speaks; listen to its story.”