Wampanoag Tribe

“We, the Wampanoag people, who opened our arms and allowed people to come here for religious freedoms, are now being threatened with our religion being taken away for the profits of one single group of investors”. -Wampanoag Indian Chuckie Green on plans to build a wind farm off the shore of Cape Cod in Massachusetts.(November 03, 2009)

Mashpee Wampanoag members-p. NAM


The Wampanoag formerly occupied parts of the states of Rhode Island and Massachusetts, Martha’s Vineyard, and adjacent islands. Nowadays, they reside in southeastern Massachusetts between the eastern shore of Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island to the western end of Cape Cod.

The Pilgrims settled at Plymouth in 1620. Massasoit, the Wampanoag Chief, made a peace treaty with the English that was observed until his death in 1660. Wamsutta, (known as Alexander by the British), Massasoit’s son, was charged with selling land that had been promised to the settlers. While in Plymouth, Wamsutta became ill and died later at his home. He was succeeded by his brother, Metacom (known as Philip by the English) who was able to placate the English leaders and thus, reduce the increasing tensions between the two groups.

Later, he organized a confederacy of tribes to drive out the settlers. King Philip and other leading chiefs were killed during this war, known as King Philip’s War. The Wampanoag and Narraganset were almost exterminated. Some survivors fled to the interior, while others joined their kinsmen on the islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard where the people had remained neutral. Disease and epidemics destroyed most of the Nantucket Indians, but mixed descendants survive to the present, particularly on Martha’s Vineyard.

The work of making a living was organized on a family level. Families gathered together in the spring to fish, in early winter to hunt and in the summer they separated to cultivate individual planting fields. Boys were schooled in the way of the woods, where a mans skill at hunting and ability to survive under all conditions were vital to his families well being. The women were trained from youth to work diligently in the fields and around the family wetu.

Early Timeline:

1620 Mayflower arrives in current day Provincetown, MA and then moves across Cape Cod Bay to Pahtuksut (current day Plimouth MA). The Pahtuksut Wampanoag do not approach the Europeans for another three months for fear of more disease being brought ashore.

1632 Missionaries begin to arrive in Wampanoag territory. John Eliot arrives from Cambridge, England and begins to learn the language of the Wampanoag in an effort to translate religious materials into Wopanaotaok (Wampanoag language) for the conversion of Wampanoag to Christianity. This is the first Amer-Indian language to employ an alphabetic writing system in the codification of its language.

1655 Harvard Indian College opens for the purpose of educating Indian youth. Harvard was in financial troubles during this time and felt that if they opened an Indian College they could secure more funding from those benefactors in England. If the Wampanoag population were assimilated to Christianity and moved away from traditional life, the ease with which land could be appropriated would prove profitable.


They were semi sedentary, with seasonal movements between fixed sites. Corn (maize) was the staple of their diet, supplemented by fish and game. More specifically, each community had authority over a well-defined territory from which the people derived their livelihood through a seasonal round of fishing, planting, harvesting and hunting. The Wampanoag way of life fostered a harmonious relationship between the people and their natural environment, both physical and spiritual. Also, they respected the traditions and the elders of their nation.


They speak their own language, Algonquin, north- dialect like the Massachuset, Nauset, and Narragansett. The name Wampanoag means ‘eastern people’ or ‘people of the dawn’. They are also called Massasoit or Philip’s Indians. In the early historic records they were very commonly referred to as Pokanoket (Poncakenet).

Wampanoag Today

Wampanoag member T. Smalley graduated from Harvard University

Today the Wampanoag Indians in Massachusetts  and are separated into 5 groups, with the Mashpee Indian Tribe on Cape Cod, and the Gay Head Wampanoag’s on Martha’s Vineyard being the largest groups, followed by the Assonet (from New Bedford to Rehoboth), the Herring Pond (from Wareham to Middleboro), and the Nemasked (Middleboro). Their total population is more than 3,000.

The ancestors of Wampanoag people have lived for at least 10,000 years at Aquinnah (Gay Head) and throughout the island of Noepe (Martha’s Vineyard), pursuing a traditional economy based on fishing and agriculture. The Aquinnah Wampanoag share the belief that the giant Moshup created Noepe and the neighboring islands, taught our people how to fish and to catch whales, and still presides over their destinies.

Some 400 years ago Europeans reached Noepe in sufficient numbers to leave a record, and by the 1700′s there were English settlements over most of the island. Through the influence of disease, Wampanoag populations were reduced and territories constricted. By the 1800′s there remained but three native communities on Martha’s Vineyard: Aquinnah, Christiantown, and Chappaquiddick, Aquinnah being the most populous and organized.

Member Jessie Little Doe Baird photo Courtesy the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Jessie Little Doe Baird is a linguist who is reviving a long-silent language and restoring to her Native American community a vital sense of its cultural heritage. She is the Co-Founder and Director of the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project Mashpee, Massachusetts. With the Help of the famous Linguist Professor Kenneth L. Hale, the nation’s language lives once again (2010).

Tribal Government

In 1972 the “Wampanoag Tribal Council of Gay Head, Inc.” was formed to promote self-determination, to ensure preservation and continuation of Wampanoag history and culture, to achieve federal recognition for the tribe, and to seek the return of tribal lands to the Wampanoag people. The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) became a federally acknowledged tribe on April 10, 1987.

Tribal Lands

The Wampanoag trust lands are located in the southwest portion of Martha’s Vineyard Island in the town of Gay Head. In accordance with 1987 Settlement Act with the federal government there are approximately 485 acres of Tribal Lands purchased (160 acres private and approximately 325 acres common lands). The common lands include the Gay Head Cliffs, Herring Creek, and Lobsterville. Other land owned by the Tribe include parcels in Christiantown and Chappaquiddick.

Wampanoag Myth: The Ever Changing Moon

There once was a curious little boy named Little Crow who lived with his Grandma, Birch Tree. Little Crow was a four-year-old boy who was curious and adventurous. Little Crow and Birch Tree lived in one of the villages which contained about forty wutes. Birch Tree and Little Crow were a part of the Wampanoag tribe and were located in Massachusetts.

“Could I go to Goldfish’s wute to play?” Little Crow asked impatiently.

“Sure” snapped Birch Tree steaming mad about being interrupted from her sewing.

About ten minutes later Little Crow and Goldfish came back to ask if they could go play on Big Bear cliff. Birch Tree let them go to play. When they got there they sat down facing each other. They held hands forming a circle. They believed that the power of a circle could summon the moon and that you could talk to the moon.

“Oh, wise moon”, they shouted into the evening sky. “Why do we not have anything to tell what day it is ?” (besides the moon and sun). There was no answer and after a while they left to ask Birch Tree why the moon did not answer them.

Birch Tree, why does the moon not answer us?” they asked.

“You have to ask him when it is dark and every one is a sleep. You won’t be able to ask him tonight because it is the Cranberry festival, there will be corn, beans, squash and there will be clay from Gay Head and a Camp fire. You’ll get to wear your new breechcloth! Now run along now, Little Crow. I want you to go with Goldfish’s Mom to the festival.”

After the Cranberry Day festival, when everyone was asleep, Little Crow and Goldfish snuck out of the village to go to Big Bear Cliff where they would ask the Moon “Why do we not have anything to tell what day it is (besides the moon and sun.)” This time the moon did reply. Little Crow and Goldfish got in a circle and held hands. “Why do we not have anything to tell what day it is, besides the Moon and Sun?” they yelled into the dark, dark sky. “Why?”

“I shall tell you how I will help you but first you must go to Gay Head and find the special powder which will only be found in a treasure chest.” Little Crow and Goldfish wasted no time and ran as fast as they could toward Gay Head. When they got there they saw a cave and went in. In no time Goldfish found a treasure chest. They opened it and grabbed the powder. They shoved the powder into their pockets. Soon they were back at Big Bear cliff in a circle for the third time in two days! They poured the powder in the middle of their circle and soon the moon was making the powder drift up toward himself. In a couple of seconds the moon seemed to disappear .

“Every day I will change shapes. First I will not appear, then I will be a 1/4 moon, then a 1/2 moon ,then a 3/4 moon and finally a full moon” the moon explained. And now the moon changes shapes over a twenty-eight day cycle to help us tell what day it is.


Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe
Wampanoag Tribe of Gay head
Wikipedia Wampanoag People
Myth: The Ever Changing Moon

Tiffany Smalley photo Boston Globe