Wampum artists travel far and wide for Aquinnah festival

Jewelers sell and teach their craft at the festival, in its 16th year.


The weather held out. The crowds came, the Black Brook Singers were drumming, the food aromas were enticing, and it was a day of celebration in Aquinnah for the annual Native Artisan Market and Festival.

The festival, in its 16th year, provides an opportunity for local — and not so local — Native American artists to sell, and teach how to make, jewelry and other goods and gifts.

“It brings me a lot of joy to organize something like this where we have a group of native artisans who hand make their items,” said Aquinnah Wampanoag NaDaizja Bolling, director of the Aquinnah Cultural Center. She says the event continues to grow: “I’m happy to bring all these people into our space on Wampanoag land. It’s really special.” 

While a good number of the 20 artisans were from Aquinnah, Douglas Vanderhoop traveled four days from Utah to be back in his original home.

Vanderhoop comes yearly to the festival with his family, who were spread out over three different tables at the festival. 

While many of the Wampanoag artisans use wampum, each has a unique style. Vanderhoop happens to affix wampum to the center of his dreamcatchers, which he superimposes over a framed image of the Gay Head Cliffs.

Just a few of the other artisans include Aquinnah Wampanoag jeweler Jannette Vanderhoop, who fashions necklaces using shells, glass, and stone beads, and uses wampum only for accent. When she receives quahog shells that aren’t quite right, Jannette Vanderhoop “seeds” them. “I cover them and say a little prayer to Moshup, and hope the tourists don’t find it,” she said. Moshop in Wampanoag culture is a benevolent being with supernatural powers and a gigantic frame. “It’s to put the calcium back into the ocean, and also in the hope that I could come back and find them refined,” Jannette Vanderhoop continued. “Because people are picking every piece of wampum off the beach; you can’t really find them like you used to.” 

Jannette Vanderhoop doesn’t buy her other beads, but rather recycles them from existing jewelry that has been given to her. 

“We’re taking every single resource out of the Earth and out of the ocean, and there’s so much material already,” she said. “My business model is to take things apart and make something new.” 

Paiute Shoshone Mikala Jackson from Carson City, Nev., does the same, calling it “reclamation jewelry.”

Also selling jewelry at the festival this weekend was Aquinnah Wampanoag Tracy Leigh Adams. She creates silver settings in her wampum bracelets and rings that highlight the purple and white shell. She also makes silhouettes of zodiac signs, whale tales, hearts, and the like, and enjoys specializing in custom designs. 

Adams worked for Leslie’s Pharmacy for years, and when customers would see the jewelry she was wearing, Adams recalls, “They would tell me, ‘You made that? You need to do that full-time.’ I finally listened to them. Now I can’t keep up. I always say, ‘I was born and raised on the Island, and lucky enough to stay,” she said.

Seaconke Wampanoag Kristine Thomas-Jones had a display of aromatic medicinal herbs that she mixes for teas and tinctures that can help for things like getting a good night’s sleep. 

Thomas-Jones combines valerian root, chamomile, rose buds, lavender, linden, and passionflower, hops, California poppy, lemon balm, and catnip. 

She also makes her morning tea with dandelion, orange peel, cinnamon, and ginger. “People think of dandelion as a weed, but it has a lot of healing properties,” Thomas-Jones said. “It has a lot of iron and helps your liver, which is one of the most important organs because of so many jobs it does, such as digestion, helping to produce more red blood cells, energy for our body, and blood clotting.”

Narragansett Robin Spears from Rhode Island works entirely with natural materials. He fashions wooden dance sticks, and uses mink oil to bring a sheen to white cedar earrings. He also boils pine sap mixed with ash to make glue that he uses to attach a stone head to an ax handle.

There was also the teaching of the jewelrymaking tradition at the festival. Mashpee Wampanoag Darius Coombs was showing Kelso Gilman how to drill a hole through the quahog shell to make his own wampum pendant. 

Coombs, who learned the art some 40 years ago from his elders, said that the bit, which is made of metal, originally would have been made of a hard stone, like quartz. Gilman, proudly sporting his finished piece, said, “It was a bit challenging at first, but eventually had a rhythm to it.” 

Asked what he thought of the day, Kelso’s father, Tim Gilman, reflected, “It’s an amazing display of crafts, and a chance for the kids to participate in the activities. It’s a great event for everybody to be involved in.”

There was also a demonstration on how to make a sailor’s valentine. Aquinnah Wampanoag Beverly M. Wright was teaching youth how to glue tiny shells on top of small wooden chests. The pieces recalled what sailors made while out in the South Sea islands and then brought home to their sweethearts, wives, and mothers. 

Narragansett Dawn Spears from Rhode Island has been coming to the festival for more than 10 years because, as she says, “It’s my home away from home.” 

Demonstrating how to make cornhusk dolls, she explained, “This goes back to not wasting anything. When we take the husks off the corn, we save them and dry them,” she said. 

Creating these traditional dolls is not just about making a plaything. The process of wrapping the husks to create the doll is complex, and Spears shared that it helps you gain hand and eye coordination. And, she added, “After you’re done, you dress it so you’re teaching your children how to sew, making moccasins and clothing so they learn those skills for the future.”