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.
These inequities helped form a rationale for the Indian's claim to the common lands, but the white residents of Gay Head believe their antagonism to the suit is equally valid. The Gay Head Taxpayers Association moved to intervene two years after the Indians filed their suit. A stormy Gay Head town meeting, which received extensive coverage from the national media, provided the opposition's impetus. After the dust settled, the town of Gay Head, with an Indian majority, voted both to dismiss the lawyer the town hired to defend the suit against the tribal council and to give the contested land to the Indians. Vague hints that the town might wish to code even more land to the Wampanoags upset the whites, so the Taxpayer's Association initiated legal action.
Robert L. Stutz, president of the Taxpayer's Association, says the non-Indians pay 80 percent of the local taxes but, as most of the white property owners are summer residents, they have no vote at town meetings. Stutz also mentioned these principal concerns of the taxpayer's association:
The Wamponoags have made no provisions for conservation or development control on the 238 acres, which include the Gay Head cliffs, a "fragile area which need special care."
The 238 acres include 98 per cent of the public beaches. The non-Indian residents want to be assured of continued access for bathing and shellfishing.
Bruce M. Bailey, another member of the taxpayer's association, pinpointed what may be the white's central worry: the suit has cast doubts on the whites' legal claim to their own land. The Indian Non-intercourse Act, as Tureen and many of the Wamponoags have stated, applies to all the lands the Indians once owned. Creating an uncertain legal and financial situation, Bailey said, no bank will give a mortgage on Gay Head property, nor will an attorney certify legal title, James Howell, a Gay Head real estate agent, says. Virtually no land sales have occured since the suit was filed, and those who have had to sell for financial reasons have taken huge losses on their original investments. "No legitimate realestate broker would push this property if it's just going to be taken away," Howell says.
The legal doubts have affected Indians as well. Those who are on a "fixed rural income" are hardest hit, Howell says. He cites cases where Indians have applied to banks for loans, but were not permitted to use their land as collateral.
Besides these official objections, certain whites privately and anonymously have expressed doubts as to the validity of the Indians' claim that they are an aboriginal tribe, a term that the law defines as "a group of people of the same race, under a common government, with a well-defined territory." Bailey calls the Indians extremely acculturated, and distinguishes between the Wamponoags and the Pasamaquoddy Indians of Maine, who have their own language and their own territory.
Another Gay Head resident says "They make a lot of noise about their 'Indianness', but they seem to me to be grasping at ethnic straws. They're living with white girls, and have intermarried extensively."
The Wamponoags, of course, refute not only the whites' claim of assimilation, but also white fears of Indian exploitation of the land. One woman said, "No one had to worry about conservation until the whites despoiled the land. We've always taken care of our land, and we always will." C. Earl Canderhoop, one Indian resident, dismisses white fears of Indian takeover angrily, says, "Some white people want everything. It's mean and selfish of them not to give us the common land--at one time we owned the whole island, and that's all that's left. There's a case on record where one man sold 40 acres for a hat. In the old days they had to live, but that sale was disgraceful."
For a year, both sides remained intractable, but pressure mounted to reach an out of court agreement, instead of a protracted court battle that would drain both the Indians' and the whites' resources. Late last June, Gov. Michael S. Dukakis announced the appointment of Albert M. Sacks, dean of the Law School, as a state mediator. Sacks had a preliminary meeting with both sides in July, then left to fulfill another commitment, returning in August to continue the talks.
Sacks, as well as the tribal council and the Taxpayers Association, has repeatedly refused to comment on the course of the negotiations, but both sides have declared themselves impressed with Sacks as a mediator. The legal aspects of the case are temporarily at a standstill, but the emotions surrounding it quietly continue to ferment.
Some of the anger and division between the whites and the Indians emerged in midAugust. At that time, Tureen drew up a preliminary plan that proposed setting up a Wamponoag reservation that would include fishing rights in the neighboring white community of Chilmark.
Tureen's plan was leaked to the public and part of the resulting furor stemmed from the fact that neither Gay Head nor the tribal council ever had fishing rights in Chilmark. Although Tureen and all members of the tribal council insist that the document was only a draft, to be used as a basis for discussion during negotiations between the taxpayers association and the tribal council, its release angered factions on both sides. Wenonah Silva, tribal council president, charged that the draft's release was an attempt at sabotaging the negotiations by disgruntled tribal council members. Certainly the public discussion inflamed white fears, while further delineating the division within the Indian community.
The anger over the reservation plan has simmered down, but no end to the negotiations is yet in sight. Although the town is suffering flom some underlying racial rancor and tension, relations on the surface remain cordial. Gay Head is a small town and most of its inhabitants would like to remain on at least speaking terms with their neighbors. A negotiated settlement must take into account certain justifiable protests on both sides. One look at the shops that pack the breathtaking cliffs gives a convincing argument for the whites' concern for conservation.
On the other hand, as the Wamponoags say, the stores, eyesores though they may be, are commercially essential for the Indians' survival, and result from white economic domination of Gay Head. Under these conditions, conservation may be a luxury only whites can afford, motivated by belated guilt over past white rape of the enviroment.
The intense political maneuvering among the Indians, and the factions within the tribe, do support some whites' doubts that the Indians are the unassimilated and united body they claim to be, Although the fight to regain the Indian land is in part a moral stand, both whites and Indians have other more selfish interests at stake.
In trying to make reparations for misdeeds of the past, some groups, as Gay Head is learning painfully, must suffer. Few Gay Head residents like the current controversy, but as the Wamponoags point out, they could claim much more than they are legally demanding now. As Tureen says, "The politicians are screaming now, but I think they will find that the tribe has been generous. Or if not, they'll forget about it." Tureen's comment is an apt summary. After the issue is resolved, Gay Head will most likely slide back into anonymity. The Indians will be a little richer, the whites a little poorer, and perhaps justice--in some compromised sense--will have been done.