Drums beat while the Black Brook Singers, an Aquinnah group specializing in powwow and traditional Eastern Native American singing, performed a song signaling the beginning of the first celebration of Indigenous Peoples Day on Martha’s Vineyard.
Once the drums quieted, the wind whispered through as the audience listened in hushed silence to the speakers — members of several different Wampanoag tribes, including the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), in Massachusetts. Some wore furrowed brows, recognizing the pains their ancestors endured from colonization, or for their ancestors having inflicted it.
Monday afternoon marked the first Indigenous Peoples Day on Martha’s Vineyard (Noepe in the Wampanoag language), hosted by Sassafras Earth Education and the Aquinnah Cultural Center. The event took place at Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown, which is named for Felix Kuttashamaquat, a Wampanoag from the 1600s who lived in the area. David “Two Arrows” Vanderhoop, a co-founder of Sassafras Earth Education, led Monday’s event.
“Today is a historic day,” Vanderhoop said. “We are going on a journey today. So, be ready to be educated and to feel feelings. Some things will not be easy for you to hear, and they will not be easy for me and us to speak.”
The event was run with the goals of celebrating and commemorating Indigenous Peoples Day, increasing the public’s awareness of the Wampanoag presence on Martha’s Vineyard, and discussing ongoing impacts of settler colonialism, according to Sassafras Earth Education’s website prior to the event. Speakers shared the experiences of the Wampanoag, while a separate children’s program introduced youth to Wampanoag history nearby.
Many states already celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day in place of or alongside Columbus Day — South Dakota, Oklahoma, and Nebraska among others, according to CNN. Others have an equivalent observance under a different name, such as Discovers’ Day in Hawaii, honoring the Polynesians who first inhabited the state.
Massachusetts is not one of these states — although many communities within it observe and celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day, according to WCVB-TV — and to the Wampanoag tribe’s disappointment, neither is Martha’s Vineyard.
Last week, the Martha’s Vineyard Diversity Coalition suggested replacing Columbus Day on the Island schools’ calendars with Indigenous Peoples Day. Vanderhoop said Native Americans have been advocating for the removal of the celebration of “this terrorist” since the 1970s.
“I say abolish C-day,” Vanderhoop said. “I don’t even want to say his name … C did not discover anything. There were thriving cultures here for thousands of years.”
The observance of Indigenous Peoples Day began with an opening gratitude, the Wampanoag’s traditional way of beginning a gathering, by former Aquinnah Wampanoag chairwoman Beverly Wright. The gratitude contained thanks toward the land the Wampanoag ancestors chose and to the people who came to support the event. Vanderhoop asked the public and media not to publicly share pictures or videos of the gratitude “as respect.”
Michael “Rising Sun” Selliti, a member of the Black Brook Singers, made an acknowledgment of the lands stolen from the Wampanoag in the Northeast U.S. He spoke about the ancestors of the Wampanoag, who were “stewards of this land,” and “the adversity and the atrocity faced by native people at the start of what became North America.” Selliti also acknowledged the lasting effects of adversity, and the great efforts Native Americans have put into preserving and reviving their cultural heritage.
“500-plus years of adversity trying to erase us,” Selliti said. “But 30 years heading in the right direction to recoup those things that were lost.”
“Feel your feet on the ground. You’re on Wampanoag territory,” Vanderhoop said. “This is stolen land … we have been ripped away from our land, our culture, our families. Ripped apart by genocide, destruction, and assimilation.”
Ramona Peters, a Mashpee Wampanoag artisan, said it was very important for the different Native American tribes to connect with one another. Peters loves to stay in touch with her relatives among the Aquinnah Wampanoag. “It’s lonely in the Indian world in America. There aren’t many of us around,” Peters said.
Other speakers told of personal experiences with the modern realities of the Wampanoag. Durwood Vanderhoop, a member of the Black Brook Singers, experienced the transitional period when the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe became federally recognized in 1987 when he was a teenager.
Kristia Hook, another member of the Aquinnah Wampanoag, spoke about the decreased accessibility to traditional foraging for native Island plants because of the changing landscapes, environmental pollution, and increase of private properties.
The change in the Island’s natural landscape has been warped by modernization, Carol Vandal, a member of the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe, told those in attendance. She said it has become quite different from the Island she grew up on, something that’s been painful to see.
Alexis Moreis, a representative of the Chappaquiddick Wampanoag, spoke of the importance of solidarity. “We need to see that through colonization, siloing of communities has separated our indigenous community,” Moreis said. “We need to ensure as we move forward that we are continuing to embrace our indigenous brothers and sisters.”
Moreis also said there is an importance of indigenizing spaces. She said the traditional Chappaquiddick Wampanoag territories include Muskeget Island on Nantucket, Cape Poge, Katama, and other areas of Martha’s Vineyard. Moreis said in 1788, Chappaquiddick was divided between the Wampanoag and the settlers, which she described as an illegal occupation of land which is not ceded. Moreis wants to encourage relations of reciprocity among indigenous communities, and suggested making changes to how history is taught in the educational system.
Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project instructor Camille Madison said she thinks of her family and tribal communities on Indigenous Peoples Day. Madison said it was greatly important to properly teach the histories of the indigenous people, which has seen a “failed attempt” by the American school system.
The event concluded with spoken condolences by Audrey Van Der Krogt and Saskia Vanderhoop, who are both from the Netherlands, for the pain caused by Dutch colonization.
The first Indigenous Peoples Day on Martha’s Vineyard was focused primarily on the Wampanoag experience. However, there was a message of support to indigenous communities around the world, and to other people who have been or are being oppressed.
“There is so much history to share from these lands and across Turtle Island, which you know as North America,” Madison said. “Âs Nutayuneân. We still live here … we are Wôpanâak, which means easterners. We are the people of the first light.”