Island celebrates third Indigenous Peoples’ Day 

Tribe members call for community advocacy, policy, and representation.



This weekend, Islanders gathered to celebrate the third annual Indigenous Peoples’ Day on Nôepe event at Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary, hosted by Sassafras Earth Education. 

The afternoon offered Islanders an opportunity to gather on the sanctuary grounds — named after Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) citizen Felix Kuttashamaquat — to honor the indigenous people of the Island, and experience authentic tribal singing, drumming, flute music, and words from native speakers. 

The event honored the Wampanoag people of Martha’s Vineyard, or Nôepe (pronounced “nope-ee”), the Wampanoag name for the Island; also honored were Wampanoag tribes in other parts of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and native tribes from all over Turtle Island, the indigenous term for North America.  

Speakers included Aquinnah Wampanoag tribal elder David (Two Arrows) Vanderhoop, Chappaquiddick Wampanoag tribe member Alexis Moreis, indigenous veteran Kevin Devine, and tribal elder and flutist Carol Vanderhoop. 

Music featured traditional native singing and drums by the Black Brook Singers. 

Sassafras Earth Education, founded by Vanderhoop in 2003, is a nonprofit organization with a focus on regenerative agriculture practices and building an equitable community. It offers programs, events, and training that reconnect people of all ages to nature through indigenous mentoring.

David Vanderhoop welcomed the crowd of about 100 people, and acknowledged the land of Felix Neck sanctuary, Wampanoag territory, and the Wampanoag people and their ancestors. He named several areas of ancestral lands, including Aquinnah, Takemmy, Nunpaug, Nashawakema, Chappaquiddick, and the rest of Nôepe. At the time of first contact, when settlers from Europe first encountered Martha’s Vineyard, there were two distinct Wampanoag tribes — Aquinnah, occupying up-Island regions, and Chappaquiddick, the small island off modern-day Edgartown, who occupied surrounding areas of Edgartown and Oak Bluffs.

Vanderhoop honored the hundreds of millions of Native Americans who lost their lives during colonization. He polled the audience for a show of hands for how many people identifying as indigenous were in the crowd. A handful showed, maybe five hands, in addition to the speakers and performers. 

“I want you to feel the reason why there aren’t many more of us sitting among you all,” he said, alluding to those who lost their lives.

He went on to speak about the untruth of the “founding myth” of the U.S. and Thanksgiving, which paints a picture of peaceful and friendly relations among the first settlers and the native tribes. 

“The truth of that is still being distorted, and not represented in a truthful manner. In museums, in media, in education,” said Vanderhoop. He said that students in the education system were “not getting exposed to the truth,” and are not learning the accurate history of the settlement of the country. Vanderhoop commented that MVRHS had invited him to speak at the school’s diversity initiative day one year, but that he had not been invited back in years following.
He also pointed out the indigenous people who themselves have lost their connection to their history. “From loss of culture, loss of language, loss of land, even loss of spiritual beliefs and spiritual practices,” said Vanderhoop, referencing former laws that once made it illegal for natives to gather and practice their spiritual traditions, such as smoke smudging. 

This is part of the goal with Sassafras Earth Education — to reinvigorate the presence of indigenous people’s history and relationship with the land in the modern public awareness, as well as to educate people on native practices, particularly young native people and BIPOC people.

“We not only teach them what’s on the land out in nature, and how to interact with one another, we also tell them the truth. We give those acknowledgements every day,” said Vanderhoop of the program. 

Alexis Moreis, tribal historic preservation officer for the Wampanoag Tribe of Chappaquiddick, spoke emphatically on the importance of native people’s access to their homeland, in terms of housing and land conservation. 

Moreis grew up in Oak Bluffs, and currently lives in Edgartown, and shared that at age 34 she had lived in 15 places on Martha’s Vineyard so far.   

“I say that both with pride but also to highlight what that means to be Wampanoag on this Island today, what that means to be able to stay here on our homelands,” Moreis said. “I speak for the generations before me, who gave me what I see as a privilege to continue living here.” She acknowledged tribal elders who were in the same position, looking for housing, or unable to find it. “I don’t want to ever leave my homelands permanently,” she said.  

Moreis pointed out the many resources the Island offers that Native Americans shared with British settlers in the days of first contact, including complex practices like shellfishing and maintaining cranberry bogs. She pointed out the importance and history of nearby Sengekontacket Pond, saying, “If you live here and practice shellfishing, you know that Sengekontacket is extremely important for the Island community at large. So when we’re talking about fiscal resources and sustenance, we have to continue to remind ourselves that this is thanks to Wampanoag people,” acknowledging that shellfishing is a skill shared by Wampanoags. 

Moreis highlighted sustenance rights, which as of 1982 in Massachusetts, ensure that native people can access their ancestral lands, and gives native people the right to hunt, fish, harvest, and gather on those lands. 

“A Wampanoag person does not need a permit,” said Moreis. “Not everybody knows that.” 

Moreis’ conservation effort is more than maintaining access to lands, it’s also maintaining native plants and animals, like beach plums, shellfishing, and cranberry bogs, with regenerative agriculture to ensure that they continue to prosper for future generations. She called for a wider adoption of an Aquinnah bylaw that requires an archaeological survey of properties before any new construction begins.  

“It gives us the opportunity to collect information that is our right as a Wampanoag people, and the right to pass that information, history, artifacts, and knowledge to our community. I’d love to see that bylaw in every town,” said Moreis. She also called for Wampanoag access to all Island beaches, conservation lands, and lots in holding, as well more Wampanoag representation on boards of Island organizations, and policy change at town and state levels. “Our Wampanoag lands were never given or orphaned; our Wampanoag lands have been stolen,” said Moreis.

Kevin Devine spoke about Native American warriors in the U.S. military, acknowledging indigenous veterans and their service. According to Devine, 19 percent of all Native Americans have served in the armed forces, and almost 20 percent of those who served are indigenous women. He acknowledged the great warriors the Native American people have produced for centuries in defending their lands and people. 

“Let us honor and celebrate the indigenous people who have the warrior spirit flowing through the veins, not just on this day, but every day,” he said. 

The ceremony ended with words and a flute song from Carol Vanderhoop, a tribal elder and cousin of David Vanderhoop. Walking barefoot in nature and feeling the presence of her ancestors “is the spirit of Nôepe,” she said. As a biologist and educator, she spoke briefly about the MVRHS turf field project, expressing concerns over the effects PFAS in drinking water may have on fertility, pregnant mothers, and future generations. 

Vanderhoop concluded the day with final words and a few more traditional songs from the Black Brook Singers. 

Both Vanderhoop and Moreis called for continued community involvement with native people. Moreis encouraged everyone to get to know the tribal lands they live on by learning about the tribes on Martha’s Vineyard and across the country.  

“We are really asking that this isn’t just the afternoon, today,” said Moreis. 


  1. So when are the people of Martha’s vineyard going to give that land back to the natives? Please like to know!

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