At Last, Home for Aquinnah Cultural Center
By IAN FEIN
Concerned about what they saw as a potential loss of cultural artifacts and traditions, a group of members of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) formed a nonprofit organization 18 years ago with a stated mission to preserve tribal history and culture.
That group, known as the Aquinnah Cultural Center, has hosted a series of events over the years, but it never had a place to call home.
Fulfilling a vision many years in the making, the new cultural center museum will celebrate its grand opening on Saturday at 5 p.m. in the historic Vanderhoop Homestead at the westernmost edge of the Vineyard.
And the late 19th century farmhouse, which has been painstakingly restored over the last three years by a community-wide effort, seems to be the perfect place carry on the tribal traditions.
"This venue will give us a chance to really do the work we set out to do - to tell the story not only of our tribe, but of our town," said Tobias Vanderhoop, vice-president of the cultural center. "Because when you tell the story of this house, you can't help but touch on every aspect of life in Gay Head."
One of the oldest homes in Aquinnah, it was built in the 1890s by Edwin DeVries - a whaling captain, the great-great-grandfather of Mr. Vanderhoop and the only Aquinnah Wampanoag to serve in the Massachusetts State Legislature.
The town-owned building has now been restored and decorated to look like an authentic turn-of-the-century Wampanoag home. Nearly everything inside - from the art and photographs on the wall, to the furniture, to the whale teeth and arrowheads on display - are original artifacts found either within the building or in the David F. Vanderhoop homestead behind town hall.
"I can't imagine it having turned out any better," said cultural center president Berta Welch, while putting finishing touches on some of the interior furnishings on Tuesday afternoon. "This place really gives you the feel of being at home."
The location of the home, perched atop the southern ridge of the Gay Head Cliffs, is also a significant and sacred place for the Wampanoag people. With sweeping views out over the Atlantic Ocean coast and Noman's Land in the distance, it is where the giant Moshup is said to have settled.
"This is where Moshup lived, here on the bluffs," said Adriana Ignacio, cultural center treasurer and the sister of Mrs. Welch. "He fished off the cliffs and sustained our tribe. And we think he's still here."
According to Wampanoag legend, Moshup walked away into the ocean after warning of the arrival of European settlers. But tribal members still feel the presence of his spirit alive and strong at the cliffs.
"See that fog out there," Mrs. Ignacio said, pointing through the window at thick billows of clouds rolling up over the cliffs. "That's Moshup smoking his pipe."
It is one of the many Wampanoag histories the cultural center will hope to keep alive in the minds of future generations. And to ensure that such traditions are passed on, the museum will host events throughout the summer that teach tribal craftswork, painting, basket weaving, stone work and early 17th century food preparation.
Cultural center members said it is important that non-tribal residents and visitors of the Vineyard also learn about Wampanoag culture. Tracing their Island heritage back roughly 10,000 years, the Aquinnah Wampanoags have, for the last two decades, carried the title as the only federally recognized tribe in the commonwealth.
"Speaking as a tribal person, there isn't anywhere else in the world I can say I belong to," Mr. Vanderhoop said. "And if we're not talking about what we did here, why we stayed or what that connection really means, then no one will be able to understand," he added.
"How many people really know who the Wampanoags are?" asked Mrs. Ignacio. "A lot of people take for granted their place in the world, and don't think of the people who were there before them because they don't value that type of history. We're hoping this museum might help them learn about that value."
Mrs. Ignacio noted that while much of the furnishings inside the Vanderhoop Homestead look like those of any other turn-of-the-century farmhouse, it is the small details and items that set it apart as unique. The kitchen hutch, for example, was salvaged from the City of Columbus wreckage – a 275-foot Savannah-bound luxury steamship that crashed into the shoals of Devil's Bridge early in the morning in January 1884. A crew of Wampanoag men launched a rescue that morning and saved 29 people, receiving medals of honor for their bravery.
"These were real Indian things - handmade and handloomed," said Mrs. Ignacio, picking up a colorful braided necklace from the bureau in the restored first-floor bedroom. "In their outward appearance, they were dressing and living like everyone. But inside, they knew who they were."
Now that the cultural center has a home, Mrs. Welch said the group will finally be able to accept items from families in town who have personal collections they want to either give or lend to the museum. She said the different rooms in the museum will allow for changing exhibits of Aquinnah artwork, photographs or artifacts.
But Mrs. Welch acknowledged that the cultural center will still have to earn the trust of many Aquinnah families, after some relics were lost by the former Gay Head Museum, located in the circle at the cliffs, only a few hundred feet from the Vanderhoop Homestead.
According to accounts in the Gazette, the old museum was forced to close in the 1960s because of financial problems. Mrs. Welch this week said the problems had something to do with a dispute between the town and county about ownership of and responsibility for the building.
The new cultural center museum, however, is the result of a wholehearted collaborative effort between tribal members, the town, the larger Aquinnah community and the Martha's Vineyard Land Bank.
When the homestead and surrounding six acres went on the market three years ago, the land bank purchased the property for $2 million and offered the building and .75 acres back to the town for $220,000. With the ultimate goal of a cultural center museum, the town's community preservation committee then spearheaded an ambitious three-year restoration project that earned accolades from across the state.
"The whole thing has been such a meeting of the minds, really," said committee chairman Derrill Bazzy, an architect who also organized many of the community workdays at the homestead. "This was a big thing for the town of Aquinnah, we'd never taken on a cultural project this big before. But people really rose to the occasion. The amount of support we've had has been incredible."
With a total renovation cost of about a quarter-million dollars, the project benefited from more than $150,000 in private financial donations, as well as $50,000 in in-kind donations and labor, and another $50,000 in grants. Overall, the only town tax dollars spent on the purchase and restoration of the homestead project were roughly $50,000 of community preservation act funds. The five-year Aquinnah Cultural Center lease will cover the mortgage costs going forward, and the town has retained the ability to rent the outside grounds for events such as weddings or fundraisers.
The cultural center already has one such fundraiser planned for August 5, when they will host a traditional Wampanoag clambake and evening of cultural entertainment.
But first is the grand opening celebration this Saturday. Everyone is welcome to tour the building and hear representatives from the cultural center and town speak about the project.
"This will be an opportunity for us as a board to say thank you to all of the people who came out and donated their time, labor or money to this restoration. It wouldn't have been possible if everyone hadn't come together to support the effort," Mr. Vanderhoop said. "So Saturday will be a time for all of us to celebrate."