Keepers of the Wampanoag's Tribal Future

Young native Americans work at saving their culture on a Massachusetts island

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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"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."

The island school system has come a long way since the days when teachers and students alike referred to Indian children as "Chief" or "Tomahawk but, explains Weintraub, "this change was made by the work of a few teachers and at the dignified insistence of people like Adriana."

A native of Ireland with extensive experience working with a multicultural approach to education, Weintraub says that she "long ago stopped using books written by the winners of history." When she worked last summer as a Title V teacher for tribal children, she chose a curriculum of poetry - the children's own poetry - which she says always reflected their native American heritage. Her students were so committed that most turned out for class even while hurricane Bob whipped the island with 100 m.p.h. wi nds last fall.

"Growing up here on the island there was very little in the way of affirming our Indian heritage - not only in our formal education but even from our tribal members. If our identity as Indians is to survive, that has to change," says Ms. Ignacio.

But preserving the tribe's place in history is on par with preserving its place in the future - and surviving on limited resources is the charge of today's island Wampanoag residents. The 1987 federal recognition left them with a minuscule 400 acres of tribal land - much of it wetlands subject to stringent state and federal environmental regulations.

Balancing tribal housing needs and development that can provide a stable economic base for its current 90 tribal members is a goal that will require tight business plans - plans which blue-chip consultants from the Harvard Business School in Cambridge, Mass., are helping to form.

"There is a lot of disinformation that federal recognition brought us a blank check," Mr. Cuch says. "That's not true. We have very limited funding, and with it [we] have to create a backup for education, health, and tribal business financing needs. And we want to attract back about 500 tribal members not living in Gay Head - half of whom are elsewhere on the island."

On Thanksgiving eve, during a performance by the Noepe Cliff Dancers and Singers at an island elementary school, the audience was reminded that the Wampanoag provided most of the food for the English colonists on the first Thanksgiving. The Puritans depended on the Wampanoag to share the Indians hunting, fishing, and agricultural expertise. Had the tribe not been so accommodating, the early colonists could not have survived. Such generosity by the Wampanoag ironically set in motion their own near-extinct ion.

But explains Cuch, the time for bitterness is long past.

"There is a common misconception about bitterness," he says. "People often think that Indians feel as if we are owed something by white society. We don't feel that way. We simply want equal standing and opportunity in this world. Bitterness comes in only when we are denied our fair chance - when we are expected to conform to stereotypes that are not only racist but plain false."

To geologists, the Gay Head Cliffs are a textbook example of fossils and glacial till slowly eroding away into the ocean. But to the children of the Wampanoag, the cliffs are not only the symbol of their Indian past but also a testament to their determination to hold on to the future.

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