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Oral History Unit: An Interview with Aquinnah Wampanoag Elder Helen Manning
Grades: 4-8

Subject Areas: Social Studies and History

Objectives: To provide an understanding of Aquinnah Wampanoag history and cultural traditions; To provide an example of the importance of oral history and its role in tribal history.

TimeFrame: 1) Helen Manning’s Childhood (one class period) 2) Aquinnah: Then and Now (one class period); 3) The History of Common Lands (one class period); 4) The Plight of Native American’s Today (one class period) 5) The Legends of Moshup (two class periods) 6) A Brief History of Wampanoag Government (one class period)

Helen recently wrote Moshup’s Legends (available in our Tribal Store), a story about her life in Aquinnah.

Oral storytelling is a rich tradition of the Wampanoag. While interviews are not strictly speaking “oral story telling,” they give historians the opportunity to record and study informal ways in which people share knowledge and personal experience.

Oral tradition is very important to us as Wampanoag and to other native Americans, as well, because our ancestors did not write books as we do today. So the way that our ancestors ensured the passing on of their knowledge of our history was by creating stories. The stories that they created explained many great and amazing events, and at the same time the stories contained our true history. Some stories contained information about ceremonies and still others contain very important values that should be practiced or sometimes avoided (depending on the story). Truly all of our stories are a living part of our past and who we are.

Read the following excerpts of Joyce Cornoyer Dresser’s interview with Aquinnah Wampanoag elder Helen Manning. Then read the discussion questions that follow each excerpt.

About the Interview
Helen Manning is an elder in the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe. She was born in Gay Head on September 24, 1919. She was interviewed in 1999 by Joyce Cournoyer Dresser, a teacher from the West Tisbury School. Helen was 80 years old at the time of this interview.

About Helen Manning
Helen Manning was born in Gay Head and lived there full-time until the age of 7 when she began spending the school months in Washington, DC where she lived with her aunt, uncle and grandmother. Her parents continued living in Gay Head, where her father, Arthur Herbert Vanderhoop, owned a restaurant and her mother, Evelyn Morse Vanderhoop, was a teacher. As a child, Helen spent summers with her parents in Gay Head.

Helen came to live permanently in Gay Head in 1956 when she was 37 years old. She taught at the Gay Head School, a one-room school house for twelve years, from 1956 until it closed in1968. Then she taught at Oak Bluffs from 1968 until 1984. In the early 1960s, she built a house on land she inherited from her father. Helen was living in this house at the time of this 1999 interview. In 1961, she married Jamie Manning, a fisherman she’d known since her childhood in Gay Head. He died in 1974. Helen was actively involved in the 12 year process to receive federal recognition of the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe, which was achieved in 1978. She counts this success as her most important personal achievement.

For many years, Helen has been working on a book about the Wampanoag of Gay Head. Excerpts of the first chapter are presented below Helen’s interview. They provide valuable information about the history of  Aquinnah and Gay Head.

I. Helen Manning’s Childhood

Were you born in your parents’ home?
Yes, right here in Gay Head, about a mile down the road on the 24th of September, 1919.

When did you begin to spend the school year in Washington, DC?
Right from the time I was seven I started school in DC. My parents were here (in Gay Head/Aquinnah on Martha’s Vineyard). I stayed with my grandmother and my aunt in DC. They were both teachers. So, I heard so much about teaching I didn’t want to be a teacher. “Anything but a teacher,” I would say. It ended up that was the thing I loved the best.

What is your earliest, best childhood memory of being in Gay Head/Aquinnah?
I think there would have been several times because my uncle and aunt used to drive up with me after school closed in Washington and getting back to Gay Head. That’s all I dreamed of from September to June.

So you had a lot of family here?
Oh yeah, I do.

When you were a child what Wampanoag customs did you follow then?
Well, services at the church, plays with the children. I always wanted to be here, but I was never able to because I was based in Washington.

Were the plays based on stories?
Yes, like “Alice in Wonderland.” And at Halloween time we would go into a tree we used to call big tree’ in the woods not far from the school, and it would be all decorated and the kids would have to go through this maze.

No wonder you wanted to be here!
I always, my whole life, wanted to live in Gay Head.

It sounds like you kind of resented going to school in DC.
I was unhappy in the beginning, but it was fun in DC, too. The friendships that I made have lasted through all these years. I’m still going back to my high school reunions.

Has there been any incident that made it difficult for you because of your heritage?
I haven’t found it to be so, but a lot of people have. I don’t know whether it’s because I grew up in a black society where you knew what your limitations were or what people thought they were or what, but I never found any problems. And I was the only person of color in the (school) system in Oak Bluffs, Gay Head, or Vineyard Haven until the late 1960s when there was Daniel Burgo, Wanza and Bettie Davis and Bob Tankard. You could count us on one hand.

When you said, “living in a black community you knew what your limitations were” what did you mean?
When I grew up in Washington, we had a separate system for black kids and for white kids. We were separated right down through the middle in our school. And then we had the black society and white society that had different theatres that you went to. You had to be super qualified, you had to be much better qualified to work in black schools , than you had to be in the white schools. Because the white people had more advantages of jobs, but my teachers, most of them, were graduates and administrators. The whole thing was super.

So that arrangement never upset you?
Yes, I mean to say I may never had said or had any animosity against something somebody may have said. For instance, the song “one little, two little, three little Indians,” I never saw anything wrong with that, but a lot of people did. One of my favorite stories was “Little Black Sambo.”

Was this school in downtown DC?
Yes, it was Paul Dunbar High School. It’s very famous. If you wanted to go to college, you went to that one and the one across the street was the Armstrong, which was a vocational school. It was in the northwest section of the city, a more affluent section of the city.

Discussion Questions

1.   Why do you think Helen’s family decided it was best for her to attend school in Washington, DC—even though it meant leaving Gay Head and her parents at the age of 7? Reread the interview and use quotes from Helen to support your answers.

2.   Are you familiar with practices in other nationalities or traditions where children live with relatives instead of their parents? Do you see any similarities between those situations and Helen’s?

3.   Helen says that she was never offended by songs such as “one little, two little, three little Indian.” Can you see why some people might find such songs offensive? Explain what might be considered offensive.

4.   Helen Manning is of Native American-Wampanoag ancestry, but she describes herself as belonging to black society in Washington, DC and attending the black school. What conclusions or questions might you draw from this?

5.   When asked about her favorite childhood native traditions, Helen describes church services, plays such as Alice in Wonderland, and Halloween festivities. Are these native traditions? Read Helen’s chapter on Tourism in Aquinnah. Then return to this question. Why might the Aquinnah Wampanoag have incorporated these other traditions into their culture?

6.   Helen explains that her teachers at the segregated school for blacks in Washington, DC were better qualified than those teaching in the segregated school for whites. Based on her explanation of why this was so, give your own understanding of how the school for blacks benefited from teachers of higher quality.
II. Aquinnah: Then and Now

When you were a child, did you have as much social involvement with the tribe as you do today?
When I was a child it was very different. Aquinnah (Gay Head) was the Indian town. It didn’t seem so much a tribe, you based your Indianness on being from Gay Head. We didn’t have a lot of recognition. But there was this community, Like you said before there were very few white people, so it was all people who had roots here, people who had been born if not in Gay Head then somewhere on the Island.

So you didn’t have formal socials and powwows then, like you do now?
Once in a while we’d have a powwow. We had dancing and singing, but we would have to import a man named Chief Blackhawk who lived in Virginia. So we’d always have to import somebody to help us with the dancing. We’d bring in other people.

When did the tribe get recognition?

Do you think things have changed for the better in your lifetime for the Wampanoag?
Oh, yes, controlling and having a lot to say is good.

There seems to be a bigger family, social unit now—at least it is more obvious.
Well, people are practicing more of their forgotten ways. (Those ways) were there, but it wasn’t emphasized. It didn’t need to be as emphasized because the whole Island was smaller in population, so people in other parts of the Island considered Gay Head as being the Indian community. And those were people who lived here all of the time.

From 1939 through the 1940s Helen’s father owned and a restaurant in Gay Head.

When your Dad had the restaurant was it mostly tribal people who had businesses here?
Right, it was mostly tribal people.

What else was here for business in the area when your father had the restaurant?
There were several people who sold pottery—Bertha Robinson and her sister Viola. There were stands that people set up in the day and took them down at night.

And were there white people who lived up here then?
Not really. Very few.

When did the white people start coming?
I’m not sure, I think the early 1900s, if then. It was an attraction, but they didn’t move here. I think it was during World War II (that they started to move here).

So, at that time, when you were a child, Gay Head was a tourist attraction?
It was a tourist attraction. In this book here that I’m working on there’s a photo of the first restaurant that my father got from his mother. This photo is people arriving on the steamboat. They came from Boston, they came from Nantucket. They would ride up to the cliffs approximately where Lighthouse Road is now and ride in an ox cart. This is the 1800s. (These people are all-dressed-women in dresses.) I don’t know how they managed! Everyone else today is finding as few clothes as they can!

Discussion Questions

1.   Re-read Helen’s description of segregation in Washington, DC from the first set of interview excerpts.  Now that you have read about Aquinnah as a place that was exclusively Native during Helen’s childhood, consider her statement, “I always my whole life wanted to live in Gay Head.” How might Helen’s experience of segregation in Washington, DC have effected her feelings about the community in Gay Head?

2.   Helen explains that during her childhood, one based one’s Indianness on being from Gay Head. “It didn’t seem so much a tribe,” she says, adding that today “people are practicing more of their forgotten ways.” Do you think that the arrival of a more diverse non-Native population in Aquinnah prompted the tribe to become “more of a tribe” and to remember their “forgotten ways”? Use statements from the interview to support your view.

3.   Helen explains that the tribe did not get federal recognition until 1987. Given that the Aquinnah Wampanoag have lived in Aquinnah for over twelve thousand years and the U.S. government is over 200 years old, why do you think the tribe’s federal recognition came so recently? Why do you think the tribe wanted federal recognition?

4.   Helen tells us that the cliffs have been a tourist attraction since the 1800s. Why do you think people went to so much trouble to visit the cliffs and the lighthouse? (For more information about the cliffs and lighthouse see The Aquinnah Cliffs and Aquinnah Light.

III. The History of Common Lands

Read Helen Manning’s description of Common Lands owned by the Tribe:

“When they made Aquinnah a town in 1870 they gave everyone who was born (in Aquinnah) a piece of outside or beach land and a piece of inside land. People could ask for as much as they could cultivate, so some people took a lot and some people didn’t. But there were certain lands that everybody used, like (where) everybody went to pick cranberries. Everybody went for the harvest and there were enough berries so people could make a business of bartering the cranberries. They would come out with great big bushels. At the time, too, people mined the clay in the cliffs and they sold that. So there were certain things that you couldn’t divide up and give you some and give me some. It had to be for everybody, so that’s what happened to the common lands. Those are the lands that everybody could use in some way or other. Like if you needed some place to land your boat when you went scalloping, like at the pond over there.

1.   Why do you think that anyone who had been born in Aquinnah was offered their own land in 1870 when Aquinnah became a town. Do you think this was common practice when most American towns were established? Who had the land in Aquinnah belonged to before 1870? Why do you think legal ownership of land had not established earlier in Aquinnah’s history?

2.   Do most American towns have the equivalent of common lands? How does Helen’s description of why common lands were necessary reflect how closely the Wampanoag have lived to nature? Give specific examples.

Historical Background on Wampanoag Common Lands

In 1870, Aquinnah became incorporated as a town, changing from its designation as an Indian district. This government designation changed the way that land was legally parceled out. Before 1870, the sachem, or head of a group of Wampanoag, would give land out to tribal members based on what that particular tribal member could cultivate or use in that year. As needs changed from year to year, the land shifted hands within the tribe. Land that was used by all tribal members—common lands that could be used for pastures or for shared wild crops like cranberries—were accessible to all tribal members. When Aquinnah became a town, however, the state required that land be designated as owned by particular individuals. The government of the town, still in the hands of Wampanoag natives, went about parceling out the land between tribal members based on the tradition of giving individuals only the amount of land that they could use or cultivate at that time. What the tribe did not understand at the time, because the town and state’s system of land ownership was so different than the Indian practices, was that land given in that manner became the property of that individual forever. Once you owned land, that is, it was yours unless you chose to sell it—whether or not your needs changed. Common lands, in addition, were given to the town, rather than belonging to the tribe communally as before. While the original system of land management was fluid and responsive to changing needs, this system was not. While at first, the full impact of this change was not felt by tribal members, over time, as non-tribal members started moving into Aquinnah, it became more and more apparent just what the new system of land ownership meant. Important and sacred sites in the town to the tribe, such as the Aquinnah Cliffs, could now be owned by non-Indians who might even deny access to tribal members.  Wampanoag tribal members who had need for more pasturing land or planting land, unlike before the town incorporation, could not get it without buying a new parcel. In 1987, the Tribe petitioned the U.S. government to become federally recognized as a tribe and the land that was left as common lands of the town at that time, 437 acres in total, was returned to the tribe collectively, not to individuals. This began a government-to-government relationship between the tribe and the U.S. government which continues to this day.

For more information about the history of land use by the Tribe, see Land Use.

IV. The Plight of Today’s Native American’s

What are your thoughts on the plight of today’s Native American as far as cultural acceptance, economic opportunity, and political strength?
I think it’s all coming out now that it should have been many years ago. In other words, it’s gone full circle. Everything was taken away from the Native American and even though a lot of people tried to hide the fact that they were Native American there were still some people who stuck it out and kept it alive for other people, for their tribal members. Not only this tribe, but all tribes. Of course in the West they didn’t have to. Here on the East coast—from the coast to the Mississippi—the feeling that the people have is that all the Indians are dead, that there are no more Indians here. The thing is that they are here, but more have been assimilated with other nationalities, but that doesn’t keep them from being a Native American. Sometimes you meet someone who says, “My grandmother was a Cherokee princess” and you can tell by the way they look they aren’t.  It all comes down, I think, to caring—caring about what they really are.
Discussion Questions

1.   What do you think that Helen means when she says, “Everything was taken away from the Native American”?

2.   What do you think Helen means by saying that “it’s gone full circle”?

3.   Helen mentions that some Native Americans pretended that they weren’t Native Americans. Later in the excerpt, she mentions that sometimes people claim to be Native American, (e.g the granddaughter of a Cherokee princess), when they really aren’t. Why do you think someone would have denied being Native American in the past? Why do you think someone would pretend to be Native American today?

4.   Do you agree with Helen that most people on the east coast think of native tribes and peoples as belonging to the past rather than the present? How do you think you would feel about this if you were a native person?

Literature Extension

As a literature extension, children can look through books about native Americans and make note of every time that the past tense is used to describe native peoples. Be sure to make the point that beliefs and many practices of native peoples continue to this day. And certainly, the native peoples themselves are a rich part of the contemporary world. Try to find examples of this to show students to balance the perspective of the literature they have looking at. Ask: How might using the past tense to refer to native people’s culture affect your thoughts about that culture?

What traditions do you want your children of Aquinnah to treasure from your life? What could you pass on to them?

Well, I think to become familiar with the legends of the tribe. And this area up here (the Aquinnah Cliffs) has a very special significance. Even with the lighthouse not belonging to us it’s very special and the cliffs the same way. Some of the children don’t want to be different you know.

Discussion Questions

1.   Read the excerpt from Helen’s book at the end of this interview about the cliffs and the lighthouse. How does this reading help you to understand the special significance of Aquinnah as a place?

2.   What do you think Helen means when she says “some of the children don’t want to be different.” If you are native, do you sometimes wish that you weren’t? If you are non-native, do you ever wish that you were native? Do you think it’s hard to be a child of native ancestry in terms of fitting in with the mainstream population? Why might children want to be the same as everyone else?

3.   Read the legend of Moshup written down by Helen Manning at the end of this interview. Why do you think Helen wants stories like these to continue to be shared from one generation to the next of the Aquinnah?

4.  In your school, what ways is it okay or not okay to be different? How might you help make your school more accepting and celebrating of differences?

What do you consider your most significant personal achievement?
To have a candy apple red convertible jaguar (laughter). It’s in the garage, so that it doesn’t get hurt. Just teasing. Actually participating in helping the tribe becoming federally recognized (is my greatest achievement). That gave us our education department and many parts being paid for. There are many benefits. It took about twelve years. We wanted to take the whole town of Gay Head, but by that time a lot of people came here who built here and only came in the summer time.


For more information about the Tribe’s history and federal recognition see Aquinnah Wampanoag History and Government section on the back of the map.

Discussion Questions
1. Why do you think the process of getting Aquinnah federally recognized took 12 years?

2. Why does Helen believe getting Aquinnah federally recognized was important for the community? Why do you think the government pays for such things as an education department for Aquinnah as a result of federal recognition? What is Aquinnah federally recognized as?

3.   What do you understand by Helen’s last sentence?  How did the arrival of non-native summer people who built homes in Gay Head (Aquinnah) prevent the tribe from getting the whole town of Gay Head federally recognized?

V. The Legends of Moshup

1. Show the children the Wampanoag logo and tell them about what it depicts. Show the children a map indicating where Martha’s Vineyard, the home of the Wampanoag Tribe, is located. Point out the Elizabeth Islands, and Nantucket, as well as the Vineyard Sound.

About Moshup
Our tribal logo shows Moshup, bigger than life, holding a whale while standing on the top of the cliffs near the entrance to his gigantic den. Moshup is our Culture Hero. He is responsible for the present shapes of Martha’s Vineyard, the Elizabeth Islands, Noman’s Land, and Nantucket. He is the one who killed the monster cannibal bird who infested our land and stole our children. He is Moshup, a benevolent, but capricious being of gigantic frame and supernatural power. His favorite daily food was a broiled whale and he usually ate a whole whale at a meal. He also threw many of them on the coast for support of the Wampanoag.

To catch the whales, he waded after them in the great sea. In those times, whales came close to shore for they had not learned to fear pursuit. Moshup could wade up and down the Vineyard Sound without finding the water more than knee deep.

From near the entrance to his den, Moshup could reach over the cliffs, pick up a whale, fling it against the cliffs to kill it, then swing it over to the fire which burned continually. The blood from these whales stained some of the banks of clay dark red. The coals of the largest trees which he plucked up by the roots and the bones of the whales plus shark’s teeth and petrified quahogs are still found in our cliffs to testify that the refuse from Moshup’s table was discarded close by his wetu at the opening of his den.

2. Now read the following Legend of Moshup to the children.

The Legend of Moshup
My tribal legend tells of a great leader named Moshup who possessed special powers. He had the ability to change himself into a giant when the situation called for it. In search of a new home, Moshup changed himself into a giant. He began walking and as he walked he, he crossed what is now The Vineyard Sound. He became very weary from the long journey and let his big toe drag behind him. The waters from the ocean then washed through the trench created by dragging his big toe, separating the new land from the old. Thus the island of Martha’s Vineyard was created.

When Moshup saw the beautiful cliffs of Aquinnah, he decided this would be his home. He brought his family and followers to this new land. Here they lived and Moshup would hunt whales for his people. He would scoop whales out of the ocean and smash them against the cliffs when they tried to bit him. The tribes from the mainland became jealous because they believed the Wampanoag people were very lazy because Moshup hunted whales for them, and they wanted whales to eat, too, so fighting broke out. Moshup decided to move his people away from the fighting.

3. Tell the children the following about legends:

Parts of this story about Moshup are true, some parts are fiction, and some may be exaggerated. Moshup was probably a great leader and may have even been very tall, but giants do not really exist. Is it true that people came to the island by land bridges. This is not an uncommon theory among scientists who study the history and culture of people (called “anthropologists”) and those scientists that study the history of the land (called “geologists”). It is also true that the Wampanoag did hunt whales.

As you can see, parts of this legend  are, in fact, true. Legends are not myths. Rather, they are metaphors, created to be clear and interesting, so that history will be remembered and carried through the people from one generation to the next.

WebLink: For more information about the Legends of Moshup, see Legends of Moshup Pageant and About Moshup.
Discussion Questions

   * What does the legend of Moshup help to explain about the natural environment of Martha’s Vineyard?
   * Do you find this legend  more or less interesting than reading a description provided by a scientist of how the island of Martha’s Vineyard was formed? Why?
   * Why might telling a story be a good way to help children remember the history of a tribe?

A Note to Teachers

If you decide to teach origin stories or oral histories of native peoples, be sure that the correct story is connected to the appropriate tribe. Different tribes have different creation stories, just as they have different customs, beliefs, clothing, housing, etc. One way to check on your accuracy is to call the tribal office of the group in question and ask if such a story exists in their oral traditions.

VI. A Brief History of the Wampanoag Government

Aboriginal Wampanoag leadership was provided by a hereditary chief or sachem who made decisions in consultation with a council of male elders, war captains, and spiritual advisors-known as “powwows.” Powwows, like priests or medicine men, were very influential people in the community. However, this began to change as the influence of Christianity became more apparent.

At first the white people did not find the Gay Head land too attractive due to its lack of resources, such as timber, extensive farmland, or a good harbour (as in Edgartown). Also the Wampanoag weren’t too much into interacting with these strangers so it allowed the Gay Head residents to remain isolated and secluded. Entire Wampanoag villages in other areas were decimated by disease, corn theft, famine, and kidnappings done by the white settlers. As villages were wiped out, these settlers moved in and ONLY then were they able to establish themselves.

You see, after the settlement of the English, thousands of Wampanoag people were dying from the diseases and sicknesses that the English were carrying, especially smallpox. The English weren’t dying because their bodies were already accustomed to these viruses. At first, the Wampanoag firmly resisted any Christian influence, but over time, this resistance broke down. They were seeing that the white people, or rather the Christians, weren’t dying, whereas many of the Wampanoag community’s leaders and members were.

Now, the reason why the new settlers weren’t dying was that their bodies were already accustomed to the viruses they were carrying. The Wampanoag were led to believe that it was because these people were Christian, they weren’t dying. As a few Wampanoag slowly converted to Christianity, their community members saw that they weren’t dying either. The fact was that once a Wampanoag had converted to Christianity, he or she could receive help and care from the other Christians and therefore be nursed back to stability.

This idea played a major role in the Wampanoag’s conversion to Christianity. By 1650, many of the opposing powwows had converted and by 1683, the majority/or almost all of the Wampanoag had converted.

Discussion Questions

1. Does the description of the Wampanoag conversion to Christianity and the statement that conversion was almost 100% among the Wampanoag by 1683, explain Helen’s explaining that tribal customs of her childhood included Halloween festivities and church services? Can you explain the connection?

Activity 5: Contemporary Traditional Wampanoag Life

The entire interview and writings by Helen Manning are relevant to activity 5.

Activity 6: Part Three: Saving the Self of Native American Youth

Link to Part I, IV, V, and VII of the WebQuest

Activity 7: Stereotypes

Link to Part I of the WebQuest.

Activity 8: Future of the Wampanoag and the Vineyard

Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) 20 Black Brook Road, Aquinnah, MA 02535-1546
Phone: (508) 645 9265    Fax: (508) 645-3790    Monday through Friday, 9 am to 5 pm
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