Cranberry Day observances brought the youngest and oldest members of the Wampanoag Tribe together on Tuesday. The weather couldn't have been better as the tribal nation celebrated its most popular holiday.
The harsh winds of the day before were spent, and a brilliant sun burned in a deep blue sky over the old bogs at Lobsterville. Participants doffed their jackets. In the small valley between the tallest dunes of the area, a natural amphitheatre, members of the tribe started a campfire while youngsters ran into the bog carrying plastic pails and shopping bags.
Chelsea Gilbert, 12, of Rochester, called out to her friends: "This ground is mushy."
"I found a whole bunch over here," shouted six-year-old Ryann Monteiro of New Bedford. His older sister, Faith, 13, was not far behind.
Cranberry Day is about children, tribal elders say. It is about passing the legends held dear in the past to the next generation.
Beverly Wright, chairman of the tribe, said: "For us this is a tribal national holiday. This is our tradition. I can remember as a young person seeing Granville Belain coming down the road in an oxcart and we would be clamoring in the back end. We'd ride down the bogs with him. These were big men and they'd assemble and take their gunny sacks and scoops and disappear into the bog."
Before it was exclusively a holiday celebration, Cranberry Day was rooted in a livelihood. Picking cranberries was the season's last harvest. "We would get enough cranberries to last the winter," said Ms. Wright. "We would make cranberry sauce and baked goods. We'd string cranberries for the Christmas tree."
William Vanderhoop Sr. remembers back even farther, prior to the 1938 hurricane, when the bogs produced barrels of cranberries each fall, not buckets. The cranberries were gathered and shipped to the mainland. The money earned from the sale was important to the livelihood of the community. What the herring were to spring, cranberries were to autumn. The former shellfish constable for the town said he remembers oxcarts coming down the hill toward the bog. He said he even remembers an old Model T making the rugged ride along the dirt road in the years before Lobsterville Road was paved. "My father had an oxen cart. We had our own private bog," he said. In those years Cranberry Day gatherings were held farther west of this spot.
Bertha Robinson of Aquinnah recalls those early years with affection. She said many townspeople came down to the bogs and pitched tents. "They'd spend the night," she said, picking berries by day and sharing in fellowship in the evening.
The 1938 hurricane changed all that. Now the cranberry bogs produce only a fraction of what the tribal elders remember. And so the holiday has become more ceremonial, more a matter of heritage than economics.
Mr. Vanderhoop sat on a makeshift wooden bench with others as smoke from the campfire spiraled overhead. He looked out across the burning fire and observed that he had grandchildren running around. "This is about celebrating the harvest, everyone getting together and having a great time," he said.
By 1:45 p.m., a group of young men had placed hamburgers and hot dogs on a grill of burning oak and charcoal. High above the smoke in the blue sky, a red-tailed hawk hovered on the updraft. Ms. Wright declared the bird a good sign.
After most of the participants had eaten, the tone of the gathering changed. The children sat quietly by their parents; others gathered more closely.
June Manning of the tribe was introduced to the gathering of 50 people. She spoke of the meaning of Cranberry Day, how the event has a history that goes back beyond anyone's memory. In the 1800s and early 1900s, "They'd camp out for a week. At night they'd have a fire, and dance and sing. In those days there wasn't refrigeration, so people saved their cranberries in root cellars. The rest of it was shipped to the mainland."
Cranberry Day custom is unique to the Wampanoag Tribe of Aquinnah. The Mashpee Tribe has its own celebration, a three-day pow wow in the first week of July.
The Vineyard Gazette wrote, in an article on Cranberry Day published Oct. 15, 1943: "The Gay Head cranberry bogs were planted by the Great Spirit. Growing wild, with no attention given them by man, the rains of winter flooded them and prevented frost-killing of the vines, while the gales of all seasons sanded them with their fine, sifted sands of beach dunes, performing the work far more perfectly than skilled human labor could do. Thus the bogs prospered and their considerable acreage, overgrown with cranberries, supplied the ancient Indians with an important item in their diet."
"When I am out here I think how important these bogs were to our ancestors," said Tobias Vanderhoop, a tribal councilman. "This is the harvest that comes at the midway point in our native year. Our New Year is in the spring."
Later Tobias Vanderhoop joined with Woody Vanderhoop and Jason Baird to make music as members of the Black Brook Drummers.
Sisters Patricia Moreis of Oak Bluffs and Eloise Boales of Aquinnah stood together in an amber, dark red and green bog, harvesting cranberries side by side.
The two ladies did well, though they said this was not as good a year as last year. This was their holiday, a time for connecting with others. Mrs. Boales said she can see Cranberry Day expanding in years to come to include more members of the community. "We need to be more open with socials with the community. This tribe needs to get together with other tribal members," she said. "Cranberry Day is our day. We don't celebrate Columbus Day," she said. "This is our holiday."
A good part of Cranberry Day is sharing this community's bounty with others. Late in the day, as high flying cirrus clouds turned red over the Wampanoag Tribal Headquarters a few miles away, another gathering arose. The potluck supper was put together by Vineyarders and their friends. Mr. Baird brought deer meat stew to be added to the buffet dinner, along with cranberry bread, bannock (a Wampanoag bread) and cornbread as well as more traditional American dishes, including several versions of macaroni and cheese casserole.
Before the first meal was served, all gathered in a circle and held hands. Mr. Baird began grace with the words: "Creator, we ask you to bless this meal."
The evening continued with more music from the Black Water Drummers and conversation into the night.