submit to reddit GoNOMAD Travel          Instagram
Stanley Clark's mural of Native Americans in Martha's Vineyard.Stanley Clark's mural of Native Americans in Martha's Vineyard.

Martha's Vineyard: Homeland of the Wampanoags

Most people think of Martha’s Vineyard as a summer destination known for its pristine beaches, white picket fences, celebrity visitors, ice cream shops, distinct maritime towns, and quaint fishing villages.

Voted Top Story of 2010 by GoNOMAD's Readers. Congrats Shelley!While all this is true, there’s more than meets the eye. It’s worth taking another look, off the beaten path, to have a greater appreciation for the island’s history and how the early link to farming and fishing still plays an important role in preserving the island’s beauty today. It all started tens of thousands years ago with the arrival of the Wampanoag Tribe.

Martha’s Vineyard, also known as “MV” is an island off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. It is steeped in history little known. Year round, there are activities and programs that add another dimension and a “sense of place” through conscious stewardship of the land and sea. The link to the land and the sea is ever present.

Hippie Days

I first got to know the vineyard from hippie days during the '70s when we headed up-island to Gay Head to the beautiful and dramatic multi-colored cliffs to paint our naked bodies in the red, orange, yellow, green, and cream clay.

Now Gay Head is called by its native tribal name -- Aquinnah -- and is still home to the Wampanoag Indians who first settled the island, predating colonial contacts. Aquinnah still remains the most beautiful and undeveloped part of the vineyard.

Today, the beauty remains thanks to respect and lots of land preservation. This comes with some restrictions. It is now unlawful to take clay from the cliffs, some trails and dunes are off limits, but nude bathing is still allowed.

Most of Aquinnah, about 480 acres, is now private and rightfully claimed by the Wampanoag Tribe dedicated to protecting and preserving the land and culture through traditional practices.

The Aquinnah CliffsThe Aquinnah Cliffs

The Wampanoags invite the public to hike the Moshup Trail via a boardwalk to the sandy beach and cliffs. The cliffs are open year-round for public viewing from a high point near the Aquinnah Lighthouse (open only in season). There’s a different show every day depending on the weather.

I’ve seen many spectacular sunsets here. The wind can be intense. From this vantage point, you can see water on three sides. Noman's Land can be seen to the south and the Elizabeth Islands, which are scenic and mostly unoccupied off on the opposite horizon.

Once Called Noepe

Martha’s Vineyard, or Noepe, was formed by glacier retreat about 10,000 years ago. Noepe is the Wampanoag word for Martha’s Vineyard. It translates as "amid the waters," a reference to the two distinct tidal currents offshore.

Wampum from Martha's Vineyard.Wampum from Martha's Vineyard.

According to the Wampanoags, MV was created by the giant Moshup, who taught them how to farm and fish and set their destiny. Tribal member, Adrieno Ignacio says, “Moshup sustained our tribe. We think he is still there.”

These shallow tidal waters provide the perfect environment for raising oysters and clams. There is a revival in growth and management of shellfish. Fishing is also a big attraction because of the diversity of fish.

Mid-September through October the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby is held every year. Thousands of anglers come to fish and try and win a new fishing boat.

A dozen shops called The Cliffs, are perched on top of the Gay Head cliffs and sell native food and handicrafts including wampum jewelry made from the purple and white quahog shells.

Berta Welch with an eel trap.Berta Welch with an eel trap.

I met Berta Welch at her shop. Everyone in her family makes wampum. Her son Giles shows and sells his jewelry at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C.

Originally dating back to the 1500s, wampum was first used for communication and currency, for declaring marriage or war or for barter. Each shell is ground and polished by hand. Generations continue this craft unique to coastal tribes.

Faith Vanderhoop’s Seafood Shack and Sushi Bar has a native food shop on The Cliffs. “We have a varied menu but keep traditional food in mind.” She is raising her daughter on-island with the intention of preserving cultural heritage. The Wampanoag Tribe population on MV is about 300 but about two thousand live elsewhere.

The Aquinnah Cultural Center is located in a restored homestead as a cultural enrichment source with artifacts and photos that document the tribe’s history. Sophie Welch, a Wampanoag studying anthropology, met me there. Her motivation to pursue this field is to preserve her cultural past.

“My mission is to carry on traditional cultural history for her people, visitors and for island people,” she said. Check the web for events and workshops here that teach traditional arts such as beadwork, basket weaving and pottery.

Aquinnah pottery at the Mv Museum in Edgartown on Martha's VineyardAquinnah pottery at the Mv Museum in Edgartown on Martha's Vineyard

Legends of Moshup

The Wampanoag Tribe has its headquarters in a nearby building open to the public with expansive views of the ancestral Aquinnah land. Their sacred land serves as a stage for their annual “Legends of Moshup,” which re-enacts the history of their early leader who they believe was endowed with great powers and responsible for “shaping” Martha’s Vineyard.

The lobby walls are covered with portraits of past chiefs and tribal members. It was there that I met the current chief, Ryan Malonson, who posed for a portrait taking on the role of chief, just as his father did. Every September there is a traditional powwow.

The MV Museum in Edgartown has a collection of Wampanoag photos, paintings and artifacts including agricultural tools, baskets, costumes and fishing tools. In addition there are recorded oral stories told by tribal members that preserve the Wampanoag’s rich cultural tradition by passing their stories down to the next generation.

Ryan Malonson, chief of the Wampanoags.Ryan Malonson, chief of the Wampanoags.

“That’s the beauty of oral history,” Tobias Vanderhoop said. “I am very staunch about not having our stories written down and put into books. Our oral tradition is a living tradition.”

The early lighthouse's original Fresnel lens that was used for almost 100 years is there for viewing.

The town hall in Vineyard Haven has large murals painted by Stanley Murphy, a vineyard artist who captured the people, landscapes and flowers of the island for 60 years. These murals depict the island’s history. One large wall shows Moshup catching a whale and teaching his people about the land and sea.

Beach Plum Bushes

It is hard to separate the land and the sea while on the island. In May, the drive up-island on Moshup Trail passes an expanse of dunes covered with beach plum bushes in white bloom that will later produce fruit to be made into beach plum jelly.

Farm institute.Farm institute.

Dramatic glimpses of the blue sea forms the horizon line beyond, while occasional hawks float above, yellow finches catch the golden light and cranberry bogs await a celebration and harvest in the same ancient way.

Every fall, the tribe celebrates Cranberry Day. Children are excused from school, and it is a day of harvesting, much as it was in the past with scoops and long handle rakes.

It is a day filled with story telling of past legends, dance and traditional foods to celebrate and give thanks to the land. There’s a revitalization for oyster farming.

The Farm Institute is another “link to the land.” Its mission is to reconnect children and adults to the land, animals and each other with hands-on experience at its teaching farm. Sustainable agriculture is taught through the culture and history of farming on Martha’s Vineyard through land preservation and nutritional awareness.

Gathering eggs at the Farm Institute.Gathering eggs at the Farm Institute.

Activities range from planting gardens, caring for chickens and collecting eggs, caring for animals (cattle, poultry, pigs, sheep and goats) and learning about nutritional awareness and land stewardship. The public is welcome. The vibe is great and the farm stand sells its local, organic vegetables and grass fed meat.

There are other teaching farms. Native Earth in Chilmark also has programs about sustainability and classes such as yarn dying with indigenous material.

There are many ways to explore MV. The Trustees of Reservations has five properties on the vineyard with walking trails and access for canoes and kayaks. Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank provides miles of walking trails. Maps are available at the Chamber of Commerce. There are 44 miles of bike trails-great ways to get to know the land.

An up-island beach in Martha's Vineyard.An up-island beach in Martha's Vineyard.

Here are some words of advice. The population of Martha’s Vineyard goes from 15,000 year round to 100,000 in the summer. If you’re planning a trip, you might want to think about pre-season or fall, when the water is still warm and the crowds have diminished, although the season seems to be expanding. Ferry reservations can be tough to get. The ferry parking lots are notorious for long stand-by lines.

On my last night I went to The Lure Grill in Katama outside of Edgartown for dinner. It’s the perfectplace to have an island-inspired signature cocktail while watching the sunset over the Atlantic. The restaurant works with local farmers, growers and fisherman. Try the Katama oysters!

The link to the land and sea seems to be more important than ever. Once you know the history of Martha’s Vineyard, it’s hard not to have a greater appreciation and respect for the beauty that remains, preserved for generations as once envisioned and lived by its earliest inhabitants.

Up-island beaches are difficult to access during the summer season but worth it. Here are some of the choices:

Lobsterville Beach is on a calm north shore beach with limited parking.

West Basin is at the end of Lobsterville Beach again with a small parking area.

Moshup Beach is part of the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank property. Parking is $15 in season. The beach never feels very crowded.

Further Information:

For information about the Wampanoag Tribe and events:

For ferry information and reservations:

Martha's Vineyard Chamber of Commerce:

Martha's Vineyard Online:

Farm Institute information:


Shelley Rotner

Shelley Rotner
is an award-winning children's book author and photo illustrator who lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, and New York City. Visit her website


Read more stories by Shelley Rotner on GoNOMAD:

Sustainable Seattle: Green Space and Local Produce

France: Experiencing the Alps with All Five Senses



An example of men's attire in colonial New England at Historic Deerfield, Massachusetts

Read more GoNOMAD stories about Massachusetts

Watch travel videos about Massachusetts


Watch Travel Videos on GoNOMAD Massachusetts Downtown Boston and Quincy Market Watch
Massachusetts, the birthplace of America, is home to some of the most fascinating haunts in the world
The Pawtucket Canal in Lowell, Massachusetts Jim Higgins photo courtesy of the National Park
Top Restaurants in Northampton, Massachusetts From TripAdvisor By a ACollege Student at Smith
The entrance to Energy Park in Greenfield, Massachusetts. Photo by Devon Magoon. Click
by Sea Cruising the Massachusetts Coast By Max Hartshorne, GoNOMAD Editor I spent my summers
A The Salem Witch Village, a store in Salem, Massachusetts. Salem, Massachusetts
by Tim Lehnert Read More about Massachusetts on GoNOMAD Boston With Kids: A Real Family
events any time of the week. Greenfield, Massachusetts: A Good Old-Fashioned Home Town
The Vietnam Veterans War Memorial on Main Street in Greenfield, Massachusetts. Photo
Twin goats at Overlook Farm in Rutland, Massachusetts. Photos by Liisa Ecola Kidding
: Keeping It Local in Western Massachusetts By Joanna Eng Western Massachusetts used to be an area I
. MarthaAs Vineyard, Massachusetts: Serendipidous Discoveries and Dockside Lodging By Max Hartshorne
of the National Park Service Lowell, Massachusetts: History and Culture in the City of Kerouac
, Massachusetts: Biking, Art and Open-Minded Culture By Lisa Linsley Most people associate Cape Cod

Tags: storySection: Destinations,Fishing
Location: Massachusetts,New England
author: Shelley Rotner
New Travel Articles


Subscribe to GoNOMAD's monthly enewsletter for all of our new travel articles
Get our free monthly travel newsletter
and help support sustainable and responsible tourism.
No spam, no selling
your email, we promise!

Subscribe to our email newsletter!

Subscribe to our monthly newsletter!

amazon ad300x250