Whose Vineyard?

Indians Fight to Reclaim Ancestral Land

A crowded tour bus with "Gay Head Sightseeing Tours" emblazoned in bright blue on its side parks in front of the Gay Head cliffs, spewing out tourists who have come to eye the rapidly eroding clay cliffs and to peer at one of the few towns in the Notheast with a predominantly Indian population.

"Look at the Indians, I want a tomahawk," shouts a young boy, dragging his camerabedecked father to the series of Indian-owned concession stands that line the entrance to the cliffs.

Scenes like this occur daily during the busy tourist season at a small town on Martha's Vineyard. The Wamponoag Indian tribe has inhabited Gay Head since at least 2270 B.B. They once owned the town's land; today they earn their keep primarily by running the stands stacked with cheap turquoise rings, moccasins, and drums. When cold weather discourages crowds of tourists, the Indians tighten their belts, earning money from shellfishing or from a few municipal jobs. Although the Wamponoag Indians still dominate Gay Head's population, they now shape their town with a small, but far wealthier, white community. The 200-person town is now known for more than its impressive cliffs because the Wamponoag Indians are following the paths of other new England tribes and have filed suit to reclaim much of the land their ancestors owned.

The suit, filed in the District Court of Boston in 1974, claims only the 238 acres of the town's common land, including the environmentally fragile cliffs, but many non-Indian residents fear a precedent that could allow the Wamponoags to claim land that is now owned privately, as well. Indeed, 'the Indians' lawyer has stated that the same principle that allows the Indians to claim the common lands applies to all the land in Gay Head and some Indian factions want to assert that legal right.

The Gay Head Tribal Council, theoretically open to all Wamponoags, and the Gay Head Taxpayers Association, a group of the resident whites who pay the bulk of the taxes in the town are the major adversaries ih the case. Gay Head's suit presents certain twists in the normal legal procedure of claimant and defendant, however, and it is these twists that make the Wamponoag's efforts alternately resemble a smoke-filled back room and a holy crusade. The tribal council is suing the town of Gay Head, which owns the common lands. As Gay Head's government consists mostly of Indians, the town officials are perfectly ready to give the Wamponoags the common lands. The Taxpayers Association, however, filed a motion, yet to be considered, to intervene in the suit on the town's behalf. Added to these legal intricacies is the almost incestuous atmosphere of a small town where everyone knows everyone, hears everything, and is probably related to their next-door-neighbor. Resentments have erupted in the past to the extent that the former tribal council president wrote a bitter and a somewhat hysterical letter to the Vineyard Gazette, the leading newspaper of Martha's Vineyard, accusing the present tribal leaders of placing a deer head with a knife in its throat in her mailbox. The leaders' response in the newspaper ignored the accusations but leaders subsequently hinted that the former president put the deer head in the mailbox herself.

Members of the tribe disagree about how much land the Wamponoags should claim, and these intra-tribe quarrels add to the confusion surrounding the case. The original suit claims only the common lands, but during Gay Head town meetings throughout the last year, Indians debated enlarging their claims. One non-Indian Participant at the meetings says that figures as large as 1000 acres have been mentioned during negotiations with the tribal council.

These legal uncertainties and intra-tribal divisions form a social drop for the legal process, which, according to the suit, alleges the "theft of the tribes" council, cites as a legal basis for the suit a long-buried act passed in 1790 known as the Indian Non-Intercourse Act. The provisions of the act state that no transfer of Indian lands can be made without the express approval of the federal government. Gay Head was incoporated in 1870, its status was changed from an Indian district, corresponding to today's reservation, to a town, with the approval of the Massachusetts, but not the federal, legislature. As Tureen notes, "Massachusetts created the town and destroyed the district over the unanimous opposition of the Indians within the district." The change in the district's legal status, Tureen says, divided lands the tribe previously held in common. It permitted land sales and made the property liable for taxation. The Massachusetts legislature viewed the incorporation as a humane act, as it allowed the Indians 'self-government'. The incorporation, however, gravely hurt the Wamponoags' economic status. Prices on land, as well as taxes on Indian-owned property soared to a level far beyond the capacity of the Indians to pay, opening the way for extensive acquisitions by wealthier whites. The Wamponoags now own less than one-fourth of the land their ancestors controlled.

Tureen sees the incorporation as a case o white greed cloaked under ostensible white magnaminity. "It was a gimmick--the whites tried to patch it up as a move to help the Indians and then they rip off the Indians' land. It wasn't terrible then, but it set off an inevitable process. Now the Indians don't control the town."

Almost all the Wamponoags agree with Tureen's assessment, because every Indian you talk to mentions the economic motive as the key reason for the suit. In order for the Wamponoags to receive any substantial amount of federal aid for rebuilding the local economy, they must have legal title to a specific area of land that they can claim as their tribal base. Without this property, the Wamponoags argue, their tribe can not receive federal recognition.

The Indians have numerous proposals for using the anticipated federal money. For example, Beverly C. Wright, a Gay Head gift shop owner, speaks wistfully of owning a lobster or shellfish hatchery. "We're not going for the whole town although we have the legal right to. We just want to see some industry built up, and with a land base we could get started on a hatchery." Other Indians would like to build food packing plants or to apply for special scholarship funds.

The Indians, however, also have social and cultural motivations. The severely limited number of jobs in the town has forced many Indians to move off the Island in search of employment, helping to whittle away at the ethnic unity of the Wamponoags and furthering the already rapid process of assimilation. Wright says "all the kids have moved off the Island to get jobs or to be able to afford land."

One result of this migration, as many older Indians lament, is the ignorance of old tribal customs and traditions among the young. Thelma Weissberg, former president of the Wamponoag Tribal Council, notices "a lack of interest in learning background and culture among the younger Indians. The Wamponoags, however, do make efforts to continue their traditions, holding story-telling sessions and occasionally perfoming tribal songs and dances.

The history of the Wamponoags' dealings with the whites since the 17th century--a succession of doubtful sales and questionable boundaries--creates another basis for the suit. White men first appeared on the island almost 400 years ago; the first recorded Indian reaction to the whites was a statement signed in 1681 by the sachem, or tribal chief, forbidding Wampanoags to sell land to the whites.

Nevertheless, in 1687, the son of the old sachem sold Gay Head to the governor of New York for 30 pounds. In response to many Indians' protest, the General Court declared the original order was a fake, and produced an Indian who claimed to have forged it, a decision that received little respect from the Indians.

The Wamponoags were further shuffled around in 1711, when the governor sold his interest in the land to a missionary society. After the American Revolution, the missionaries withdrew and the Indians found themselves under the control of absentee landlords as "involuntary wards of the state." According to a Wamponoag historical pamphlet, wards had no control over their lands and homes, could not make legally binding contracts, and "were classed with paupers, aliens, idiots and the insane in their relationship to the government." The Wamponoags remained in this state until 1870 when Gay Head was incoporated as a town.