Nonprofit Notebook: Kinship Heals

Embracing Wampanoag culture is the best way for the Aquinnah Wampanoag community and Island community to stop violence and heal. 

Here on Martha’s Vineyard, we are comfortable talking about and celebrating certain aspects of our history and present reality, but we rarely talk about our historical and present violence. 

The Aquinnah Wampanoag people have been living on Martha’s Vineyard for 12,000 years. The Aquinnah Wampanoag were a matrilineal nation where land usage was passed through the women. Men left their communities and families to reside with the women in their communities, and among the woman’s family. Women controlled the gardens, and were in charge of food disbursement. Aquinnah Wampanoag women and men were actively engaged in what we now call “regenerative land care.” 

Men had to obtain permission from the women to go to war. Elder women would settle domestic disputes, and would notify the men of their decisions. Men would make sure these decisions were carried out. There was an egalitarian government where both genders could be leaders. Evidence of this is in the language. For example, sachem means male leader and saunkskwa means female leader. Mutumwuhsuhs, the word for woman in Wampanoag, means “the one who has final say.” There was no domestic violence, rape, or violence against women. There are no words in any native language to describe this behavior.

When Europeans descended upon the island of Martha’s Vineyard, things changed. There was a tremendous wave of violence against the Aquinnah Wampanoag people and the land. The aggression toward the Aquinnah Wampanoag people included rape, murder, and slavery. After the Revolutionary War, the Aquinnah Wampanoags were made involuntary wards of the government, and could not own land or incur debt. It should be noted that before the Europeans arrived, there was no concept of land ownership. There were shared land and shared resources. Beyond taking their land, the Europeans took children as a form of payment for any debts tribal members owed. 

Jumping forward in time, in the early 1900s, the U.S. government rounded up tribal children, taking them away from home and putting them into boarding schools, using the rationalizing motto “kill the Indian and save the man.” For Aquinnah specifically, it was under the guise of teaching them a trade. Some members ran away from the schools, and came back. A few thrived. In the 1960s, U.S. policy for tribal women was to force them to be sterilized without consent. Tribal women were often considered bad mothers, and for this reason, the Department of Health and Human Services had a policy to, whenever possible, forcibly take children away from their parents. Many members of the Aquinnah tribe have been impacted by these policies and practices. The Indian Child Welfare Act was passed to stop this practice. “There has been so much violence against us for so long that, in a way, it has become rooted in the community. Lateral violence and nonphysical violence have been normalized, and are even used in our everyday communications,” Jennifer Randoph, executive director of Kinship Heals, says. 

Today, four out of five native women (84.3 percent) will experience violence in their life. And more than half (56.1 percent) will experience sexual assault or rape. In fact, according to the National Congress of American Indians or NCAI, native women are 3.5 times more likely to be raped or assaulted than women of other races. These numbers are significantly higher than the Massachusetts and national statistics. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 33.9 percent of Massachusetts women and 31.7 percent of Massachusetts men experience intimate partner physical violence, intimate partner sexual violence, and/or intimate partner stalking in their lifetimes. In the U.S., on average, nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner. During one year, this equates to more than 10 million women and men. All of this is to say that rape, sexual abuse, and domestic violence is here on Martha’s Vineyard. And given the math, it is probably happening somewhere on the Island right now, as you are reading this.

The only good news about any of this is that Jennifer Randolph and her Kinship Heals team are also here and happening right now.

Kinship Heals, “the Northeast network of kinship and healing” founded by Jennifer Randoph, is based on the belief that embracing Wampanoag culture is the best way for the Aquinnah Wampanoag community and Island community as a whole to stop this violence and heal. 

“Due to the nature of the state-sanctioned violence tribal communities have sustained over hundreds of years, we must also rebuild the bonds of kinship to our extended family tribes of the Northeast, not just for protection and collaboration, but because it is necessary in restoration. Violence permeated our culture — from housing to food — so we have to work in all those areas. This means the interface between a person, their family, community, social services, the legal system, the medical system, educational system, and our food system all need to work differently. It’s a lot to undo and do,” Randoph says. She explains further, “As a matrilineal tribe, the health and well-being of the people cannot be improved without ensuring safety for women. As native people we also understand that everything is connected, and we cannot address safety without addressing food systems, economies, land, and ceremony. This project is about restoration, and in that restoration, restoring balance and understanding relationship and connection.”

For 10 years, Randoph, a member of the Wampanoag Aquinnah people, has been building a coalition and collaborating with Island agencies to cultivate this restoration. She has received two U.S. Department of Justice grants for Kinship Heals to offer domestic violence and sexual abuse services. With these grants, other private grants and private donors, she has been able to open an office in Chilmark, and buy a nearly eight-acre parcel of land in Aquinnah that will soon become the physical home for Kinship Heals.

Kinship Heals has six areas of focus:

  • STAR: Shelter, Transitional Assistance, and Relocation for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, sex trafficking, and stalking.
  • SUNRISE: Services for Urban Natives that Respect Indigenous Sovereignty and Experiences: The SUNRISE program is a partnership between Kinship Heals and other domestic violence and sexual assault programs to meet the culturally specific needs of urban natives seeking services. 
  • CARE: Ceremony, Advocacy, Resources, and Experience are the core services for domestic violence and sexual assault victims. These services include healing activities, support groups, advocacy (for housing, education, legal, with law enforcement, medical, and anywhere else needed), resources (includes food, utility and rent support, clothing, information, healing, and cultural materials, and referrals to other resources), and access to staff who are tribal as well, and trained in advocacy specifically for tribal people.
  • FEAST: Food Equity and Sovereignty Traditions: The FEAST program is designed to use traditional ways where women were in control of the food in the community and made sure everyone had enough to eat. This program uses traditional community Three Sisters gardens, harvesting of traditional foods, and collaborations with food equity partners to provide weekly food distributions and holiday meals to the tribal community.
  • PEACE: Prevention Education Awareness and Community Engagement. The intent of this program is to provide prevention services with young people by teaching healthy relationships, healthy coping mechanisms, understanding boundaries, and healing for those who have already been impacted. Kinship Heals provides education around violence, and raises awareness of the problem and the services that are available. Most importantly, they provide community awareness and education so that they can change the community’s response to violence. They provide training to community members so they can work as advocates, or simply be better equipped to respond to others in the community who are experiencing or perpetrating violence. Changing the community’s response to certain behaviors will create new norms. Providing the community tools they need will empower them to create safety.
  • The COAST: Circle of Allies and Sovereign Tribes: This program is meant to strengthen the kinship bonds of tribal communities that existed prior to colonization, and build alliances with nonnative organizations, with the goal of working collaboratively together to address policies, practices, and services for the indigenous people in the Northeast.

Jennifer works with a team of five, who together provide multiple types of services. Advocates and a social worker respond to crises, provide emotional support, and help gather resources for victims. A youth program coordinator helps teach healthy relationships and healthy communication. They explore concepts such as, Who am I? Where do I come from? Who is a good friend for me? Why am I anxious about hanging out? What are my boundaries? They agreed to a conflict-resolution process. There are administrative team members who focus on finances as well as the food programs. Every team member, regardless of title, is trained and skilled in advocacy services, and when needed, the whole team can respond to an “all hands on deck” situation. Together these women help those who are in crisis, who need legal, medical, psychological, or housing support. They host inter-tribal events and attend Wampanoag powwows. They develop curriculums and programs for urban mainstream domestic violence and sexual assault service providers, such as Transition House of Cambridge, that work with urban natives. They hold weekly food distributions that feed more than 100 tribal families. They provide access to certification in Indigenous Practices of Circles. They organize Tribal and Intertribal Girl’s Relationship Retreats. They grow Three Sisters gardens and sweetgrass. “Everything we do is about repairing relationships,” Randoph says. “I can’t wait until we can build our center.” 

Randoph sees the land as a healing hub. There will be housing for people who need “a time-out. Time to get their feet back under them.” There will also be a second structure on the land that will serve as an educational center. “This will be the gathering space. We will have a library, a freezer, and pantry.” There will be a garden that will include food for feasts and medicinal healing — witch hazel, skunk cabbage, and grape vines.” But what Randoph seems most excited by is the safe outside space the land provides: “It is so healing to be in nature. To listen to the brook. To reconnect.”

As we talk further about the dreams for the land and community, it becomes clear that Randoph and her Kinship Heals team are doing more than fighting violence. They are writing a new chapter in the Aquinnah Wampanoag people’s history. It might be called “A Map for Healing and Thriving.”