The Wampanoag (from Wikipedia)

Who Are They?

The Wampanoag (Wôpanâak in the Wampanoag language) are a federally recognized Native American nation which currently consists of five tribes, located in present-day Massachusetts. Two have gained official federal recognition. In the 1600s when encountered by the English, the Wampanoag lived in southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island, as well as within a territory that encompassed current day Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket. Their population numbered in the thousands due to the richness of the environment and their cultivation of corn, beans and squash; it was 3,000 on Martha's Vineyard alone. From 1616-1619 the Wampanoag suffered an epidemic of what researchers now believe was leptospirosis, a bacterial infection also known as Weil's syndrome or 7-day fever. While it may have been carried by the English, it may also have arisen from factors in the Wampanoag environment and their contact with diseased animals. It caused a high fatality rate and nearly destroyed the society. This crisis contributed to the conversion of Wampanoag to Christianity, as they began to doubt the power of their own traditions. During the early decades of English colonization, relations were friendly, but the nation began to resist colonial encroachment. Historians believe the losses from the epidemic made it possible for the English colonists to get a foothold in creating the Massachusetts Bay Colony in later years. King Philip's War (1675–1676) against the English colonists resulted in the deaths of 40% of the tribe. Most of the male survivors were sold into slavery in the West Indies. Many women and children were enslaved in New England. While the tribe largely disappeared from historical records from the late 18th century, its people persisted. Survivors remained in their traditional areas and continued many aspects of their culture, while absorbing other people by marriage and adapting to changing economic and cultural needs in the larger society. Although the last native speakers of Wôpanâak died more than 100 years ago, since 1993 the tribe has been working on a language revival project that is producing new native speakers, the first time this has been achieved in the United States. The project is working on curriculum and teacher development. The chief groups of Wampanoag began to re-organize their governments in the late twentieth century, although only one federally recognized tribe has reservation land. They are seeking to acquire land to be held in trust to enable Indian gaming to generate revenue for the nation. In November 2011, the Massachusetts legislature authorized the Mashpee Wampanoag to acquire land in southeastern Massachusetts for a gaming casino.


Wampanoag means People of the First Light. The word Wapanoos was first seen on Adriaen Block's 1614 map and was the earliest European representation of Wampanoag territory. Other synonyms include "Wapenock," "Massasoit" and "Philip's Indians". In 1616, John Smith erroneously referred to the entire Wampanoag confederacy as the Pakanoket. Pokanoket continued to be used in the earliest colonial records and reports. The Pokanoket tribal seat was located near present-day Bristol, Rhode Island.


The Wampanoag were semi-sedentary, with seasonal movements between fixed sites in present-day southern New England. The "three sisters," corn (maize), beans and squash were the staples of their diet, supplemented by fish and game. More specifically, each community had authority over a well-defined territory from which the people derived their livelihood through a seasonal round of fishing, planting, harvesting and hunting. Because southern New England was thickly populated, hunting grounds had strictly defined boundaries. The Wampanoag, like many Native American peoples, had a matrilineal system, in which women controlled property (in this case, the home and its belongings, as well as some rights to plots within communal land) and hereditary status was passed through the maternal line. They were also matrifocal: when a young couple married, they lived with the woman's family. Women elders could approve selection of chiefs or sachems, although males had most of the political roles for relations with other bands and tribes, and warfare. Women with claims to specific plots of land used for farming or hunting passed those claims to their female descendants, regardless of their marital status. The work of making a living was organized on a family level. Families gathered together in the spring to fish, in early winter to hunt and in the summer they separated to cultivate individual planting fields. Boys were schooled in the way of the woods, where a man's skill at hunting and ability to survive under all conditions were vital to his family's well being. Women were trained from their earliest years to work diligently in the fields and around the family wetu, a round or oval house that was designed to be easily dismantled and moved in just a few hours. They also learned to gather natural fruits and nuts and other produce from the habitat. The production of food among the Wampanoag was similar to that of many Native American societies. Food habits were divided along gendered lines. Men and women had specific tasks, and Native women played an active role in many of the stages of food production. Since the Wampanoag relied primarily on goods garnered from this kind of work, women had important socio-political, economic, and spiritual roles in their communities. Wampanoag men were mainly responsible for hunting and fishing, while women took care of farming and the gathering of wild fruits, nuts, berries, shellfish, etc. Women were responsible for up to seventy-five percent of all food production in Wampanoag societies. The Wampanoag were organized into a confederation, where a head sachem, or political leader, presided over a number of other sachems. The English often referred to the sachem as “king,” a title that misled more than it clarified, since the position of a sachem differed in many ways from that of a king. Sachems were bound to consult not only their own councilors within their tribe but also any of the “petty sachems,” or people of influence, in the region. They were also responsible for arranging trade privileges as well as protecting their allies in exchange for material tribute. Both women and men could hold the position of sachem, and women were sometimes chosen over close male relatives. Two Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket Wampanoag female sachems, Wunnatuckquannumou and Askamaboo, presided despite the competition of male contenders, including near relatives, for their power. These women gained power because their matrilineal clans held control over large plots of land and they had accrued enough status and power—not because they were the widows of former sachems. Pre-marital sexual experimentation was accepted, although once couples opted to marry, the Wampanoag expected fidelity within unions. Roger Williams (1603–1683), stated that “single fornication they count no sin, but after Marriage, (which they solemnize by consent of Parents and publique approbation...) then they count it heinous for either of them to be false.” In addition, polygamy was practiced among the Wampanoag, although monogamy was the norm. Although status was constituted within a matrilineal, matrifocal society, some elite men could take several wives for political or social reasons. Multiple wives were also a path to and symbol of wealth because women were the producers and distributors of corn and other food products. As within most Native American societies, marriage and conjugal unions were not as important as ties of clan and kinship. Marriages could be and were dissolved relatively easily, but family and clan relations were of extreme and lasting importance, constituting the ties that bound individuals to one another and their tribal territories as a whole.

Language and revival

The Wampanoag originally spoke a dialect of the Massachusett-Wampanoag language, which belongs to the Algonquian language family. The first Bible published in the colonies was a translation into Wampanoag by the missionary John Eliot in 1663. He created an orthography, which he taught the Wampanoag. Many became literate, using Wampanoag for letters, deeds and other historic documents that form the largest corpus in a written Native American language. The rapid decline of speakers of the Wampanoag language began after the American Revolution. The historians Neal Salisbury and Colin G. Calloway note that at this time, New England Native American communities suffered from huge gender imbalances due to premature male deaths, especially due to warfare and maritime activity. Many Wampanoag women were forced to marry outside their linguistic groups, making it extremely difficult for them to maintain the various Wampanoag dialects. Currently English speaking, since 1993 the Wampanoag have been working on a language revival led by the Wôpanâak (Wampanoag) Language Reclamation Project, a collaboration of several tribes and bands led by co-founder and director Jessie Little Doe Baird. A few children have become the first native speakers of Wôpanâak in more than 100 years. The project is training adult teachers to reach more children and to develop a curriculum for a Wôpanâak-based school. Baird has compiled a 10,000-word dictionary from university collections of colonial documents in Wôpanâak, as well as writing a grammar, collections of stories, and other books.