Keepers of the Wampanoag's Tribal Future
Young native Americans work at saving their culture on a Massachusetts island
GAY HEAD, MASS.
ON autumn Saturdays, 17-year-old Cameron Cuch is a defensive back for the Martha's Vineyard High School championship football team. But on Saturdays, he exchanges his helmet and shoulder pads for ritual feathers and bells - because like most teenagers, Cameron loves to dance.Skip to next paragraph
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Cameron is one of the founders of the Noepe Cliff Dancers and Singers, a troupe of 15 youths on the Massachusetts island. They take their name from the Wampanoag word for the high, brightly colored Gay Head Cliffs - named by English explorers - that now belong to the tribe. He says that singing and dancing the native American rituals helps him understand who his people are - and who they were.
"The Wampanoag language is pretty much gone. There are only a few words here and there that we still know of. But the songs that we sing are about the closest we'll come to preserve the language not only for this tribe but for other tribes," says Cameron.
"With the songs inside ... whatever I do I know who I am and whom I represent. I am Cameron Cuch - native American."
Cameron's father, Forrest, is a tribal planner for the Wampanoag. As he spoke after an evening rehearsal of the drummers, the beam from the historic Gay Head Lighthouse struck his seaside home with yellow flashes of man-made lightning. He sees the drumming and singing as the echo of another kind of native language.
"Just because you lose your language does not mean that you have lost your culture, because there's other forms of the language," Forrest says. "Our songs, stories, and legends are still here. When these kids sing and dance, something happens, That drum represents the heartbeat of Indian people. And as long as those songs are being sung, Indian people continue to thrive and exist."
Yet the past 400 years have been anything but festive for the Wampanoag. After losing all but a vestige of their island homeland to English colonists in the 17th century, the tribe barely survived on the isolated end of Martha's Vineyard. Before contact with Europeans, the Wampanoag thrived on much of the Massachusetts and Rhode Island coastline.
But in 1987 - after a long and costly legal battle - the island Wampanoag received tribal recognition from the United States government. Although recognition brought some limited financial and land gains, it acknowledged something more fundamental.
"What that recognition did was say to us something that we as a people never forgot - that we have the right to exist," says Woody Vanderhoop, a high school senior who appears headed next year for an Ivy League university. He plans a career in law "because the tribe needs a native American lawyer who will expect payment not in dollars - but in the security of our tribe."
But taking pride in his Wampanoag heritage was something Woody once found difficult. His elementary school teachers recall that as a fifth and sixth grader he shirked at being identified as Indian. Now he is gently, but unmistakably, militant.
Island teacher Elaine Weintraub credits much of the recent resurgence of Indian pride among tribal youth to the commitment of Adriana Ignacio, director of the federally funded Title V tutorial program.
"Adriana understood that the key to success in other academic areas was the children's sense of self-esteem," Ms. Weintraub says. "If they did not possess a pride in their background - in who they were - how could we expect them to excel elsewhere? Something as obvious as this was ignored in their public education for generations."