July 10, 2012

Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head


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 Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head is a federally recognized indian tribe.

Official Tribal Name: Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head of Massachusetts

Address:  20 Black Brook Road, Aquinnah, MA 02535-1546
Phone: (508) 645 9265   
Fax: (508) 645-3790   

Official Website: http://www.wampanoagtribe.net

Recognition Status: Federally Recognized

Traditional Name / Traditional Meaning:

Aquinnah,  meaning “end of the island.”

Common Name:

Gay Head Wampanoag

Meaning of Common Name:

Gay Head was the English name of their principal community, until the name was officially changed back to to Aquinnah in 1998.  The peninsula was once known to European seafarers as Gay Head because of the multi-colored clay cliffs on its shores.

Alternate names:

Formerly known as the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head of Massachusetts

Aquinnah Wampanoag  

Alternate spellings:

Wômpanâak, Wompanaak

Name in other languages:

Region: Northeastern 

State(s) Today: Massachusetts

First Contact:

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. By the 1800’s there remained but three native communities on Martha’s Vineyard: Aquinnah, Christiantown, and Chappaquiddick.

Traditional Territory:

The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) is one of several remaining tribes of the Wampanoag Nation. The Nation occupied a territory that bordered on present day Boston to the north, extending west to Warren, Rhode Island, and south and east to the coast of Cape Cod, including Martha’s Vineyard (Noepe) and Nantucket Islands.

Confederacy: Wampanoag


In 1987, the WampanoagTribe obtained federal acknowledgement by an act of the U.S. Congress (P.L. 100-95).  

Reservation: Wampanoag-Aquinnah Trust Land

The Aquinnah Tribal Lands are located at the southwestern portion of Martha’s Vineyard, a 93 square mile island located six miles south of mainland Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and 80 miles directly south of Boston.

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, and the private lands include parcels I, IIA, IIB, and III. Other land owned by the Tribe include parcels in Christiantown and Chappaquiddick. A master plan of Wampanoag Tribal Lands was developed in 1993 for approximately 160 acres of the Wampanoag Tribal Trust Land, comprising of parcels I, IIA, IIB, and III.

Land Area:  485 acres
Tribal Headquarters:  Gay Head, MA
Time Zone:  Eastern

Population at Contact:

Population at contact with the westerners is estimated to be about 12,000. This number was drastically reduced by European diseases and further by encroachment on their traditional lands by Europeans. At the end of King Phillip’s War in 1675, there were only a few hundred Wampanoag people remaining.

Registered Population Today:

About 1,121 enrolled tribal members in 2014.

Tribal Enrollment Requirements:

Genealogy Resources:


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.

Name of Governing Body:  Tribal Council
Number of Council members:   7 plus executive officers
Dates of Constitutional amendments: 
Number of Executive Officers:  Chairman, Vice-Chairman, Secretary, and Treasurer


Council members are elected for three-year staggered terms.   In addition, the traditional positions of Chief and Medicine man are life-long Council members.

Language Classification:

Algic -> Eastern Algonquian ->  Wampanoag -> Massachusett

Language Dialects:

The Massachusett language was also commonly referred to as the Natic, Wômpanâak (Wampanoag), or Pokanoket. Natic is the dialect that was spoken at Gays Head. The language was used by John Eliot to print the first Bible in the Americas in 1663.

Originally, the Massachusett language was primarily spoken across eastern and south-eastern portions of Massachusetts, including the North Shore, coastal areas along Massachusetts Bay, and southeastern Massachusetts including what is now Bristol and Plymouth counties, Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, and the Elizabeth Islands.

Speakers also extended into the lower Merrimack Valley and coastal regions of New Hampshire, and southeastern Rhode Island. The language was understood from the central coast of Maine to eastern Long Island, across most of central and southern New England, and perhaps further as the pidgin variety was used for inter-tribal trade and communication.

The language was spread to the Nipmuc and the Pennacook due to the influence of the Natick Bible in the Christian mixed-band Indian communities.

Number of fluent Speakers:

Although this language has been extinct since the 1800’s, there has been a movement recently to revive it based on existing texts lead by Wampanoag tribal member Jessie Little Doe Baird, who started work on the Wômpanâak Language Reclamation Project in 1993.

Today, the language revival efforts have re-introduced the language to the Wampanoag of Aquinnah, Mashpee, New Bedford, and Plymouth, Massachusetts, which are home to the Aquinnah, Mashpee (Massippee), Assonet, and Herring Pond (Manomet or Comassakumkanit) bands, respectively.Classes for learners have been set up in four Wampanoag communities, and a handful of native speakers are now growing up in the language.

As of 2014, about fifteen people have speaking ability in the language, but none are completely fluent in the language or speak it as a first language.

An immersion charter school is set to open in 2015, with Wampanoag as the language of instruction for core subjects. As the school is a charter school, it will be available to both tribal and non-tribal citizens of regional Massachusetts.


Bands, Gens, and Clans

The Wampanoag Nation was originally comprised of over 60 tribes that resided in southeastern Massachusetts for thousands of years. 

Related Tribes:

Traditional Allies:

Traditional Enemies:

Ceremonies / Dances:

Modern Day Events & Tourism:

Cranberry Day Harvest in October, a Spring Social in April, and the performance of the “Legend of Moshup” pageant for the general public in July and August. 

Legends / Oral Stories:

Art & Crafts:




The Wampanoag homes were called wetus. The wetus were domed shaped huts made of sticks and grass.


Traditionally, the Wampanoag fished, grew corn, beans and maize, and hunted whales and wild game. Women primarily did the farming and gathering of shellfish, berries and nuts, while men were responsible for hunting and fishing and defense of the tribe.

Economy Today:

The Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe operates a shellfish hatchery on Menemsha Pond, cultivating oysters. Tourism is also very important to the tribe. Many tribal members own their own businesses, while others have had to move off island for employment.

Religion & Spiritual Beliefs:

The Aquinnah Wampanoag share the belief that the giant Moshup created Noepe and the neighboring islands, taught the people how to fish and to catch whales, and still presides over their destinies. 

Burial Customs:

Wedding Customs


Wampanoag Chiefs & Famous People:

Squanto – was a Wampanoag who had been kidnapped and sold into slavery in Spain during earlier interactions between native people and Europeans. After gaining his freedom, he returned home. Squanto lived with the Pilgrims and acted as an intermediary and interpreter between the colonists and natives until his death.

Samoset – The first native to greet the Europeans was Samoset, a visitor of Chief Massasoit of the Wampanoag Indians and a member of the Abenaki sachem tribe. Samoset had learned English in interactions with English fisherman. A few days later, he introduced Squanto to the Pilgrims.

Chief Massasoit – signed a peace treaty with the pilgrims and as part of an agreement with them gave them over 10,000 acres of land.

Wamsutta, oldest son of Chief Massasoit became leader of the tribe after his father’s death. His reign was short-lived. After a visit to the colonists, he mysteriously died on his way home, leading the Wampanoag to believe he had been poisoned.

Chief Metacomet, also known as King Philip, – and another son of Chief Massasoit, became Chief after Wamsutta’s mysterious death. He gained the support of other Wampanoag tribes and King Phillip’s War began in 1675. The war was named after King Philip because he was the principal instigator and a major war chief in this war. By the time the war ended, only a few hundred Wampanoag remained and Metacomet was shot by the Pilgrims.

Catastrophic Events:

Tribe History:

Our Thanksgiving holiday tradition in the United States was adopted from the Wampanoag Indians interaction with the Pilgrims.

However, Chief Metacomet, sometimes known as King Philip, eventually declared war on the pilgrims. The growing number of English were displacing the Wampanoag Indians and converting them to their faith. Overall, King Philip felt the English were having negative affects on the ways of his tribe.

The war only lasted a year, but it was the bloodiest of the Indian Wars, with most of the Wampanoag Indians and their allies, the Narraganset, being killed. Those that were not killed in war fled to other tribes and those captured were either relocated or sold into slavery. Because of this slavery trade, there is a population of Wampanoag descendants in Bermuda today.

In the News:

Further Reading:


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