Luther Tacknash Madison died peacefully at the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital on Thursday night, March 12, after a long illness, during which, as Medicine Man of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) he never complained. His final happy words, according to his great-nephew Jason Baird, now Medicine Man, were that “My beautiful sunset is coming.”
Luther Madison was born at the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital on Nov. 9, 1924, the son of Napoleon Bonaparte and Nanetta Cassaundra Wilhelmina Vanderhoop Madison.
His early years were spent between Gay Head and New Bedford where his family maintained a home, partly because of the medical treatments Luther could get there, for as a child he had developed the throat cancer that left him, lifelong, with a husky voice. In New Bedford, he and his sisters Wenonah and Wilhelmina attended school. On occasion, his cousins resided with the family as they were all cared for over the years by Mrs. Harriet Haskins.
Luther was graduated from Massachusetts State College at the Stockbridge School of Agriculture where he was a valued member of the basketball team. In high school, he had played football. His early years were spent as a professional arborist, landscaper and a gardener, planting and mowing and caring for gardens all over the Island. In that capacity, he was nicknamed “Tree Weed” or “Treery,” two of many nicknames he would have through the years. “Lu,” “Grampie Lu” and “Tacky,” a shortened version of his middle name, Tacknash, were others. As a fisherman, he enjoyed scalloping on Menemsha Pond and especially the banter while shucking scallops with family and friends. For more than 30 years he was the much-loved elementary school bus driver, buying the buses himself that would serve the community.
As a true Gay Header, his family, his church, his community and his tribe were all very meaningful to him. He was the patriarch of his large extended family. He served as a deacon of Community Baptist Church of Gay Head. For the Town of Gay Head he served as an auditor, on the board of assessors, and as a selectman. He was designated a Sachem for the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) in 1959. In 1973 he became the Chief Medicine Man for the tribe, a position his father Napoleon Bonaparte Madison had held for many years.
As a tribal member and tribal elder, he served on the tribal council, as a member of the Cultural and Historic Commission, on the Chief’s Council, on Elder’s Council, and was very much at the forefront throughout the federal acknowledgement process.
In February, 1945 he married Freda M. Belain of Gay Head, a marriage which subsequently ended in divorce. They were the parents of the late James Madison and Sandra Madison who both passed away in infancy. Their children include Jeffrey Madison of Woods Hole, Kathleen Madison Williams of Boston, Stephen Madison of Boston, and Jean Ann Madison of Boston who all survive him. He is also survived by numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
In April, 1978 he and Anne Fleming Vanderhoop married and he became the patriarch of his extended family consisting of Captain William D. Vanderhoop Jr., Erick P. Vanderhoop, David E. Vanderhoop, Matthew J. Vanderhoop, Captain Brian F. Vanderhoop, and Julianne Vanderhoop-Mahoney, all of Aquinnah. He was the grandfather and great-grandfather to all of their children.
Luther and Anne worked long hours together at the Aquinnah Shop atop the Gay Head Cliffs. In earlier years, Luther did most of the cooking while Anne did most of the planning and prep work. They were constantly together and Luther never fully retired. His father Napoleon had originally opened the Aquinnah Shop in the 1940s as a sandwich and ice cream shop that was rather small. Napoleon and his sister Anna created crafts throughout the winter for sale during the summer; both were masters at beadwork.
The Aquinnah Shop expanded over the years, adding a larger dining room, a larger area for the gifts, a porch overlooking the cliffs, and then a terrace overlooking the south side. They were very generous with their time and resources. For many years they graciously hosted the very successful Easter Sunday breakfast to raise funds for Community Baptist Church.
Over the years they provided employment for not only their families and their large extended family but for most of the residents of Gay Head and especially for the youth in town, whether year-round or summer, who were especially trying to save for college. The students returned throughout their college years and subsequently would visit whenever they were in town. Whether it was a matter of not seeing them for five, ten, or even fifteen years, Luther and Anne always remembered their names, their colleges, and perhaps now their spouse’s name and the names of their children.
Luther was the baker of pies, rising early each day and baking a dozen or more pies, depending on the number of reservations for the day. He generously donated pies for many gatherings around town. They were all delicious but his most sought after were the apple, blueberry, strawberry-rhubarb, banana crème and chocolatecrème. When, last November, he and Anne bough a Toyota hybrid, he had to make sure, before the deal was sealed, that there was enough room in it so he would be able to carry two trays of pies a day this summer to the Aquinnah Shop. His annual birthday gift to his son Jeff was alw ays an apple pie. Luther’s other gastronomic specialty was the clam fritter. To make these, he would remove the belly of the clam and add it — whole — to the rest of the clam meat that he had ground up.
For several years in the 1990s Anne and Luther also operated the Nunnepog Restaurant year-round at the Martha’s Vineyard Airport, ultimately returning to the Aquinnah Shop to carry on their business. They had an international clientele, luminaries and dignitaries, who returned year after year for some of the most delicious meals around.
For Thanksgiving and Christmas, Luther and Anne hosted an open house at their home for their family, extended family and their many friends. He was known as a trickster and if someone had a piece of pie, and left the room or turned around, Luther would hide the pie and would remain silent until it was found. He was also known for his fondness for playing solitaire.
On occasion, Luther and Anne would go away for vacation or for a few days and always looked forward to the gift shows at the end of winter. In September, 2006, they were invited to Hawaii for the wedding of Anne’s granddaughter Amy. Anne felt it was too expensive and was adamant about not attending. Brian had already purchased a ticket for Luther, and at the very last minute Anne decided she would go and Diotima secured a ticket for her. The 16-hour trip was exhausting but once there they enjoyed Hawaii immensely, going to the beach, relaxing, enjoying the noticeably insect-free environment, and taking an island tour with Anne’s son Captain Buddy. They felt it was definitely the most wonderful vacation they had ever had.
Luther was a gentle soul who was well-loved by all. He was known for his kindness, generosity, sense of humor and integrity. He will be missed by so many.
Funeral services were under the direction of Chapman, Cole, and Gleason. Viewing was held at the Aquinnah town hall on Sunday afternoon. A sacred fire had been held at Luther’s family home throughout the weekend.
On Monday, services were held at the Aquinnah Town Hall, with a procession around Aquinnah to the Cliffs. Reverend Roger H. Spinney of Community Baptist Church conducted the graveside service with interment at North Cemetery.
During the service the Black Brook Drummers and Singers drummed while Tobias Vanderhoop danced. Jason Baird offered a prayer in Wampanaak. Tribal Council chairwoman Cheryl Andrews-Maltais spoke of Luther’s wisdom and contributions to the tribe.
At the end of the service, as the final words were expressed and the last beat of the drum was beat, a red-tailed hawk circled above while Luther carried with him the eagle feather from Alaska as a final gift from his fellow tribal council member Eleanor Francis Hebert. A potluck gathering was held at the Tribal Building with family and friends from across the Vineyard and across the Nation.
In lieu of flowers, it is recommended that donations be made to the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) — Higher Scholarship Fund —Attention: Education Department, 20 Black Brook Road, Aquinnah, MA 02535.