The World of the Aquinnah Wampanoag

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I’ve explored Martha’s Vineyard from shore to shore and I’ve discovered some wonderful treasures.

I’ve seen sandy beaches…

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 I’ve stood on gently rolling hills…

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I’ve seen the the magnificent Cliffs of Gay Head…

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…And the peculiar cottages of Oak Bluffs!

Martha’s Vineyard is a vibrant summertime destination. It also has a tremendously rich history that reaches back thousands of years.

I wanted to find out more about the island, so I met up with Bettina Washington. Bettina is the sister of the Chief of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (also known as “Aquinnah”).  She grew up on the western side of the island where her ancestors lived for 10,000 years. Long ago, the Wampanoag named the island “Noepe” meaning “a dry land.”

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Bettina Washington, a member of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head

Among the island’s most notable geographical features are the Gay Head Cliffs. These massive cliff faces rise dramatically out of the sea from the western shores of the island. Imprinted on their faces are the most beautiful striations of red, yellow, tan and black clay pigments.

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Bettina told me a traditional Wampanoag story about the island’s origins and whaling traditions. The Wampanoag say that a giant named Moshup created Noepe and its neighboring islands. Moshup caught whales for his dinner and shared them with the island’s people. He would wade into the water, pluck a whale from the ocean, and fling it against the cliffs. The Wampanoag say that the cliffs are stained with the whale’s blood.


Today, geologists say the colors in the cliff were from clay deposited over 75 million years ago, which was then thrust up by the glacier during the last ice age some 18,000 years ago. However, the story of Moshup demonstrates that this island had a profound connection to whales long before ships like the Morgan sailed the world’s oceans.

Prior to the arrival of European settlers, the Wampanoag hunted whales for sustenance close to the coast. We know that the Wampanoag played a key role in teaching early European settlers about hunting and catching whales. When commercial whaling began to grow, some Wampanoag men signed on as crew, and their pursuit of whales took them on journeys far from home.

At the height of the American whaling industry, it was considered lucky to have a Gay Head Indian working on a whale ship. Gay Head Indian Zenas Gould sailed aboard the Charles W. Morgan on the vessel’s first voyage. Whaling ships were both multicultural and entrepreneurial. Inexperienced deckhands started off as greenhorns sleeping in the fo’c’sle (the place I currently sleep). As they acquired more skills, their living quarters would mover further aft. Some Wampanoag men eventually became mates and captains.

Bettina taught me many things about her tribe’s history and culture. She showed me examples of traditional crafts like wampum (traditional shell beads). She also showed me an example of their traditional architecture – a hut known as a “wetu.” The structure is made from bent cedar and the bark of poplar trees. You can see a view inside by clicking here.

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Bettina also took me to Christiantown. The town was established by the missionary Thomas Mayhew in 1650. Designated as a “praying town” for converting Wampanoags to Christianity, Mayhew allotted a square mile of land as a place for the natives to live and worship.

Today Bettina is overseeing the restoration of the chapel. It was built in the late 1800s.

A construction crew from C.H. Newton Builders works with Bettina to restore the old chapel.

A construction crew from C.H. Newton Builders works with Bettina to restore the old chapel.

The Wampanoag lived throughout southern New England. It is estimated that over 70,000 of them inhabited the region at one time.  However their population was drastically reduced due to diseases and displacement from European settlers. There were once nearly 12,000 Wampanoag people living on Martha’s Vineyard alone. Today, the island’s native population is around 300.

Bettina is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer. Her job is to preserve and interpret her tribe’s history so it can be understood by future generations. In her lifetime she has seen the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head gain recognition from the state and federal government. The tribal land became acknowledged by the U.S. government in 1987.

After exploring the island and spending a wonderful day with Bettina, I returned to the Morgan where she was docked in Vineyard Haven.

The Morgan had over 2,000 people per day visiting the ship.

Nearly 2,000 people visited the ship on each day!

I want to give a big shout out to Mrs. Berube’s second grade class who visited the Charles W. Morgan yesterday. They wrote and illustrated this fabulous book called Morgan Math, and presented me with an Oak Bluffs Raiders T-shirt. Unfortunately I was not here during their visit, but the crew and I have enjoyed reading the book aloud on the main deck. You’re all so very talented, and Captain Kip Files thinks you captured him perfectly! From the tip of the bowsprit to the top of the mainmast, all of us on the Charles W. Morgan want to say thank you!

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Before the sun went down I had a Skype session with Discovery CT from Capitol Hill. I took some senators on a virtual tour of the Morgan and told them just about everything I had seen and done so far on the 38th Voyage. In a day’s journey I went from walking through ancient tribal grounds to chatting with politicians in Washington D.C.  These summer days are certainly busy!

Goodbye, Martha’s Vineyard! Hello to New Bedford!

– Ryan