Festival in the Circle

Native American Artisans Festival comes to Aquinnah Circle on the Cliffs.

The Aquinnah Cultural Center. — Susan Safford

The 13th annual Native American Artisans Festival, sponsored by the Aquinnah Cultural Center, is happening Saturday, July 20, from 11 am to 4 pm at Aquinnah Circle. The ACC is a self-standing not-for-profit, located in its own building originally built in the 1890s and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s spectacularly perched over the sea at the Aquinnah Cliffs, adjacent to the festival’s location at the Aquinnah Circle. This family-friendly event is not to be missed. With its outdoor, tented setup, proximity to other charming attractions, and everything you need to amuse toddlers to shufflers (my cousin Johnny’s nomenclature for folks over 70, including himself), the festival is one version of a perfect Island afternoon.

Berta Welch, president of the ACC, lifelong Aquinnah resident and member of the Wampanoag Tribe, is passionate about the ACC’s role in sharing Aquinnah Wampanoag stories, culture, and current activities. “Our main goal is to represent Native American history, town-wise, on the Island, and in New England,” Welch says. “As best as possible, we also hope to illustrate the successes and struggles of indigenous people, both through specific local cultural identities and global realities.”

The Native American Artisans Festival, presented by the ACC with support from the Martha’s Vineyard Bank, Massachusetts Cultural Council, and New England Foundation for the Arts, brings Native American artists from New England and the Northeast to show their wares and discuss culture and tradition with their guests.

Classic as well as contemporary handcrafted arts will be on display and for sale. You can be an artisan yourself, by making your own wampum or sailor’s valentine pendant. Juli Vanderhoop of the popular Aquinnah Orange Peel Bakery is preparing traditional Wampanoag food. You’ll want to experience the energy of the Tribal Drum circle, and discuss the history and significance of these centuries-old crafts.

Wampum, while often used to fashion contemporary handmade jewelry, was traditionally a northeastern Native American currency, also used for storytelling, ceremonial gifts, and diplomatic agreements. These white-and-purple shells are made from channeled whelk shells (the most iconic of all seashells), quahog, and hard-shelled clams. A sailor’s valentine is a souvenir made of multicolored seashells, originally created by sailors, usually made for their sweethearts, presented after years-long voyages. 

Recently appointed ACC program director Melissa Knowles says the ACC has attracted the most artisans so far in the festival’s history, with all of the participants being Native Americans from the Northeast. The event makes for an interesting selection of items, where one can juxtapose traditional crafts with those of a more contemporary design. The festival is an important event for the ACC. Knowles says, “The ACC is here to voice the Wampanoag Tribe’s celebration of their culture and to educate visitors. We strive to create a space where communities can gather together, share knowledge, and learn from each other.”

The ACC will have its annual fundraiser on August 7 at its building, presenting a culturally inspired contemporary dance work by Marsha Parrilla of Danza Orgánica, in collaboration with the Yard, the Island’s internationally known choreographic residency program. In addition, the ACC offers a regular series of fascinating lectures, demonstrations, and docent tours, supporting its goal of preserving, interpreting, and documenting the Aquinnah Wampanoag’s history, culture, and contributions to the past, present, and future.

Adrianna Ignacio, an ACC board member, tells us that there is a popular event taking place on July 20 at the Aquinnah Circle, the same day and location as the Native American Artisans Festival. The sixth annual Public Safety Day is sponsored by the Aquinnah Police and Fire Departments, Tri-Town Ambulance, and the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head Natural Resources Department. There’ll be free giveaways, food, big equipment, and, weather permitting, a Massachusetts State Police helicopter. 

Two unique family-friendly July 20 events, free with free parking, are happening so you can enjoy beautifully crafted arts for browsing and buying, big rigs, and local food. You can also take in the shops on the Cliffs, the Gay Head Lighthouse, and nearby Philbin Beach. Or you can soak in the lovely vistas and the Cliffs themselves and — my favorite — the wonderful plaid-colored sea. 


Native American Artisans Festival, Saturday, July 20, 11 am to 4 pm. For more information, call 508-645-7900 or email aquinnahcc@gmail.com. Public Safety Day, Saturday, July 20, noon to 4 pm. Call 508-645-2313 for information. Both events take place at the Aquinnah Circle, and have free parking.