Teaching the truth

Aquinnah Cultural Center offers education on Wampanoag past, present, and future.


We who live or visit the Island are privileged guests of the Aquinnah Wampanoag, whose ancestors have lived on Noepe (Martha’s Vineyard) for at least 10,000 years. Sitting on the Aquinnah (Gay Head) Cliffs is a rich resource, the Aquinnah Cultural Center (ACC), with a mission to preserve and document the Aquinnah Wampanoag self-defined history, culture, and contributions of the past, present, and future.

The ACC, which is home to the Aquinnah Wampanoag Indian Museum, started with an idea: the preservation and passing on of cultural and traditional knowledge. The institution found its home at the Edwin D. Vanderhoop Homestead in 2005, and opened to the public in 2006.

For the ACC, the goal is to enhance cultural awareness within the tribal community, and provide the general public with opportunities to learn about the Aquinnah Wampanoag through exhibits, community partnerships, and educational endeavors.

Speaking with program director NaDaizja Bolling, it is clear that, as she says, they are a “small but mighty team,” and are carrying out important work. From June through October, the museum, with its new permanent exhibition, welcomes individual visitors and groups. They have welcomed a boarding high school based in Connecticut, a group from Amherst College, and one from New York affiliated with My Brother’s Keeper, a national initiative started by President Barack Obama that addresses persistent opportunity gaps faced by young men of color. Bolling says, “We have a really diverse group of people coming. We even get huge flocks of organized tour groups of seniors. It’s nice that we can be flexible to accommodate all ages and give them a good experience. And it is pretty great that we’re even getting people from different parts of the country.”

With youth groups, she explains, “We do anything from a scavenger hunt to exploring our interactive box, which has different types of animal hides, percussion instruments, woven baskets, different types of dolls, and action figures that are traditionally Wampanoag.” Lessons on making corn husk dolls are a favorite, along with programming about stories of the legend of Moshup, how Capt. Edward Harlow landed on Noepe in 1611 and kidnapped a Wampanoag named Epenow, and how Epenow eventually escaped.

So long as a courageous teacher and students are willing to brave the cold, programs take place outside the museum in the colder months, since the building is not winterized. Typically, in the off-season, teachers and administrators from schools across the Island reach out to them. Those at the Garden Gate Child Development Center and the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School arrange classroom programming of all types. 

Some programming requests are general, and others are more specific, such as about Cranberry Day and its history, as well as the modern-day celebration. Bolling says, “Sometimes we’re asked to talk about, ‘Why Indigenous Peoples Day instead of Columbus Day?’ A teacher reached out because her class was doing a debate and they wanted to get the local indigenous perspective on the topic, to try to prepare the students with facts and truth.”

The ACC doesn’t have a standard school curriculum at the moment, although they want to build one after securing financing. Even without specific funding for certain efforts, they are dedicated to carrying out their mission to educate and inform the whole Island community about Wampanoag presence and history, whether it’s through classroom visits, or speaking with organizations such as the Martha’s Vineyard Center for Living and Island Grown Initiative. “We’re committed to doing this however possible, although funding makes it easier,” Bolling says.

Most recently, as part of their community engagement, the ACC worked in close partnership with Danza Orgánica, a Taino dance group based out of Boston, on the powerful new piece “Âs Nupumukâunean (We Still Dance).” The performance highlights traditional and contemporary stories of the Aquinnah Wampanoag people through dance, song, installation, and storytelling that culminated in a public showing by tribal members and the dance company.

Asked what she finds surprising about their educational outreach, Bolling responded, “I don’t know if it’s surprising, but telling youth about history from our perspective, they’re so excited, yet also grasp onto the information. And they respect it. They have a level of understanding that I think surprises me every time.” She continued to say that she thinks the programming exemplifies the importance of giving youth more credit for all they can conceptualize and contribute.

“I think it’s so powerful because it’s an indicator of the future and what’s possible. Seeing how open their minds are, and how critical they are in their thinking surprises me every time … but in a very good way,” Bolling says. Sharing their knowledge and experience is at the heart of the ACC, and as Bolling says, “We are here and happy to help people navigate the questions they have about Wampanoag history and presence on Martha’s Vineyard.”

The Aquinnah Cultural Center and Aquinnah Wampanoag Indian Museum welcome inquiries at aquinnahcc@gmail.com.