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Keepers of the Wampanoag's Tribal Future

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

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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."

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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.