‘Who we are’

New Smithsonian exhibit features fascinating accounts of Aquinnah tribal members.

The Aquinnah Cultural Center promotes cultural awareness and providing the general public with an opportunity to witness and learn about the Aquinnah Wampanoag experience through exhibits and educational programs. — Connie Berry

A newly available online exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) features a number of videos made by members of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) describing elements of history, culture, art, and practice of their people. The exhibit also serves to illustrate the efforts Wampanoag people are making now to share these long-held values and customs with their families, and with the rest of the tribal community, in order to ensure the preservation of the People of the First Light.

Wampanoag history

The Wampanoag people (meaning “People of the First Light”) have lived in the Eastern part of Massachusetts for at least 25,000 years, and have lived on the Island of Noepe (Martha’s Vineyard) for at least 13,000 years, according to a video exhibit made by Aquinnah Tribal Chairwoman, Cheryl Andrews-Maltais. The video speaks of precontact days, when the Wampanoag people lived in beauty, simplicity, and harmony with nature. 

Thousands of years before white European colonists arrived on Wampanoag shores, Viking Norsemen would travel there and take what they wanted before leaving. By 1602, British explorers were kidnapping Native Americans and in 1606, four ships captured 40 Wampanoag and brought them back to England. “One of them was the Wampanoag Sachem, Epenow, from Noepe,” Andrews-Maltais says in the video.

Epenow had mastered the English language while in captivity, and was sent back to Noepe to lead the English in their search for gold. Upon steering his captors to the Island, his kinsman swam out to the ship and rescued him. The sachem was now back home, but by 1616, an epic plague struck the coastal tribes of New England, decimating the population to the point where only about 25 percent of Native Americans remained in the region. Island communities were less affected, as they were sequestered from the mainland, Andrews-Maltais explained.

With the Native population reeling from disease, and the newly arrived English highly vulnerable, peace between the white settlers and the Wampanoag came with a negotiated treaty, the 1621 Treaty of Peace. According to Andrews-Maltais, it was the first treaty ever signed in this hemisphere, and marked the initial recognition of King James that the Wampanoag were a sovereign nation.

Andrews-Maltais described the early uneasy relationship between the Wampanoag and the Europeans that eventually led to what is called “The first Thanksgiving,” by Americans but what Native Americans refer to as a day of mourning and solidarity. “The next 25 years after that point were an uneasy coexistence between the two. Our sovereignty was eroding,” Andrews-Maltais said. 

In 1661, the leader of the Wampanoag, Ousamequin, died, and the relationship between the two nations deteriorated further. Ouseamequin’s eldest son, Wamsutta, was marched to Plymouth at gunpoint — he had been accused of conspiring against the English. Wamsutta mysteriously died while in captivity. 

Wamsutta’s brother, Metacom, who succeeded Wamsutta as sachem, sent runners to ask neighboring tribal nations if they would come together to help stop the onslaught of the English. This conflict lasted from 1675 to 1676 in what is now called Metacom’s War. Eventually, Metacom knew the only way to ensure the safety of his people was his death.

Metacom was shot, decapitated, and his head was put on a spike outside of Plymouth as a warning to other Native Americans who sought to defy English rule. Metacom’s storied wampum belt, which the exhibit speaks to in depth, may have been chopped up, and pieces of it used as trophies of war. According to Andrews-Maltais, pieces of the belt are in museums around the world.

With the end of Metacom’s War, the Wampanoag tribal nations scattered. Some were hunted down and killed or put in internment camps, while others were sold into slavery or were forcably proselytized and acculturated. 

“Despite that, the culture and customs and society prevailed, but in secret. For three centuries, we endured, and continue to endure,” Andrews-Maltais said. “At one point, there were up to 68 Wampanoag tribes. Now Mashpee and Aquinnah are the last two of the great Wampanoag nation.”

The importance of wampum

The brilliant purple wampum, harvested from the shell of the quahog, has long been associated with the Wampanoag people and their ancient ways of life subsisting on the fruits of the sea. One video on the NMAI exhibit page describes the story of wampum, the role it played in the Wampanoag way of life, and what it represents in the modern day. 

Margaret Bruchac, a professor of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, said in the video that the word wampum means “shell beads” in Wampanoag, and because there are a variety of different hues that can be revealed from the shell, the beads were sometimes used as a binary signaling system. Because they were so widespread and valuable among the native nations, when European colonists first came, they began using wampum beads as substitutes for European currency. However, it’s a commonly held misconception that wampum equated to any form of currency for the Wampanoag. 

According to Aquinnah Wampanoag artisan Berta Welch, the important people of the tribes were always well-adorned with wampum, adding that shell jewelry worn on the ears, neck, and wrists often denoted spiritual status or a position of power. Paula Peters is a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag who was recently part of an effort to recreate a wampum belt much like the one worn by Metacom. Peters said in the video that wampum belts were the closest thing to written history for the Wampanoag people. In terms of spiritual use, and in ceremonies, the belts are like a sacred document, and are critical to preserving Wampanoag traditions, stories, and heritage.

“I had the honor and privilege of being able to view the collection of wampum belts at the British museum. I had asked for permission to enter alone first, and to pray over the belts in Wampanoag,” Peters said. “They are like a living part of our history and it was their first time to hear their own language in probably 300 years.”

Linda Coombs, program director at the Aquinnah Cultural Center (ACC), was also part of the initiative to make a traditional wampum belt. She said she scoured the Island and areas of Massachusetts for tribal people who could make beads for the belt. Several folks on the Island contributed beads, and by the time the belt was finished, it contained 3,570 wampum beads crafted by many different hands. The belt represents a collaboration between Wampanaog people, and reflects the Wampanoag creation story through entrancing imagery and totems similar to the ones emblazoned on the belts of old. 

Nowadays, Welch said, her inspiration for doing her jewelry work comes from understanding the history of native people, as well as from her parents, who instilled a deep sense of creativity in her at a young age. “My mother made pottery with clay from the Gay Head Cliffs which was then later sold. It was an industry that many native families did to make a living,” Welch explained.

While the work Welch does is more contemporary — using wet saws and belt sanders to shape the shell to her intended design — the traditional wampum beads were carved by hand. The inside of a conch shell was used as a needle to drill the inside hole of the bead, and then the bead was rolled into a cylindrical shape. 

Welch, who chairs the ACC, said the center has given a number of classes on wampum jewelry making, and several Wampanaog folks have gone on to continue working with the shell. Welch has passed on her knowledge of wampum making to her son and daughter, and there are a number of people in the community who continue to teach the native youth the craft so that it will never be forgotten.

For Welch, it’s difficult for her to see wampum become a tool for cultural appropriation. In the video exhibit, Welch said a great influx of nonnative people are creating quahog shell jewelry and calling it wampum. It has become a community talking point, and Welch said now is the time to educate nonnative people on ways to better respect the Wampanoag language and culture. 

Traditional storytelling

For millennia, the Wampanoag people have told stories about those who came before them, and passed the information down through family lineage in order to maintain an oral record. Tales told around the fire during ceremonies and communal gatherings in Aquinnah have solidified into historical legend, and are now cultural property of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head and its citizens. 

According to Tobias Vanderhoop, Aquinnah Wampanoag and former Tribal Chairman of the tribe, he is thankful for the fact that his ancestors have preserved such a powerful gift for his people. “That gift is our oral tradition,” Vanderhoop said. “As long as we continue to share these stories, they will live, and we will know our history. 

In the video exhibit, Vanderhoop shares the Wampanoag creation stories of Noepe (Martha’s Vineyard), along with Nantucket and Nomans Land. Meaning “dry place,” Noepe became home to the Wampanoag people when Moshup the giant, a benevolent deity, sensed strife among the mainland communities. Before, Moshup would wade through the ocean to the clay cliffs of Aquinnah and hunt whales just off the shoreline. 

“He liked to eat whales,” Vanderhoop said. “From time to time, those whales had teeth and they would try to bite him as he caught them and he would smash them up against the cliffs.”

After his whaling, Moshup would be very hungry. He would tear up all the trees on the cliffs to use as firewood, roots and all, then spread them across the cliffs to roast his catch. Over time, the cliffs were stained red with whale blood, and black and gray from the campfire charcoal. 

After a time, Moshup decided he needed to take his family away from the mainland to a place free of controversy, with enough food to eat and land to farm, so he told them of the place called Aquinnah, where he would catch his whales.

“He told them they would walk there,” Vanderhoop said. “And so they traveled there, and when they arrived they saw the beautiful colors in the cliffs, they explored and found all the places that Moshup had described.”

There were places to hunt and fish and grow crops, and even the abundant wild nuts and berries that Moshup enthusiastically recounted. The Wampanoag people knew Moshup had found them a good home, and that is how the Aquinnah Wampanoag settled here. Although other tribes in the region share Moshup stories, this story in particular is unique to Noepe, and the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head. 

“Overtime, these many stories have become children’s stories, but we know as practitioners of our ancient culture that these are the encapsulation of vast amounts of history,” Vanderhoop said. “They are pieces of who we are that truly tell us what our place is in our world.”

View the online Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian exhibit at bit.ly/Wampanoag_exhibit through Feb. 28, or head to the Aquinnah Cultural Center aquinnah.org for more information on the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head.