From the Vineyard Gazette edition of October 15, 1943:
Tuesday was Cranberry Day at Gay Head, and it is no exaggeration to say that virtually the entire population turned out for the annual visit to the wild cranberry bogs which has been the practice of the people of this place for untold generations. The crop of the wild berries was unusually fine this year, following several years of poor ones, and the pickers were well rewarded for their labors. But the scene did not greatly resemble those of other years when all Island people lived more simply and closer to nature.
Notified by the cranberry agent, Napoleon Madison, that the bogs would be opened, the pickers gathered walking and riding in cars. But a few oxen remain on Gay Head, which was the last Island town to virtually abandon this ancient draught animal, and their absence changed the picture greatly. The workers picked, to a great extent, with cranberry scoops, which allow for the harvesting of quarts of berries in a single motion. In other years, scoops were forbidden on the bogs. But in some respects, and undoubtedly in sentiment, the Gay Head people looked upon this day and its activities with much the same feeling as did their ancestors.
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 the 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.
For was it not the wild cranberry that seasoned the pemmican and prevented the spread of disease among the tribesmen during the long, cold moons? The medicine men said so, and with good scientific reason. Therefore, it was an ancient decree that the harvest of the wild cranberry should be performed with reverence and following appropriate ceremonies such as those that marked the corn harvest, and the first appearance of the spring schools of fish or the season of the scallop in the fall.
In modern practice, the influence of the white missionaries of three centuries ago may be seen when the cranberries are ripe. It may well be an Indian practice as well, but it is certainly one of the fundamental principles of all devout people, that the good things of life should be shared with others, and thus it has been with the Gay Head cranberries.
These bogs are common land, perhaps the only common land now existing in this state, or New England. It is land that has never been owned by any save the Indian. Therefore, all who own kinship with the Gay Head people are entitled to pick cranberries on the bogs. To protect the interest of the actual owners, the bogs were formerly opened to them alone for the first three days after notification by the cranberry agent. After that anyone could go to the bogs who wished.
In more recent years, the Gay Head people have reserved but one day for themselves, after which the bogs were free to all. In this way they have preserved the tradition of sharing what the Manitou had given them with others less fortunate, which was not only in keeping with Christian teaching but may well have had a significance arising from practices begun long before the coming of the white people.
For the wild cranberry did not grow extensively in other parts of the Vineyard, and no other division of the Island tribes enjoyed such a harvest as this.
Thus they shared, one with another, those things which were necessary to sustain life, and poor as they were and thus forced to extremities unknown to mainland tribes, yet out of their deeply laid principles alone, they developed into the proudest and most independent people that white explorers discovered on the continent.
It is not strange, therefore, that the significance of Cranberry Day should still remain, nor that it should possess such a hold upon the Gay Head people.
Yet there is missing today, the noon-day respite from berry-picking, when tiny cooking fires dotted the bogs and the kettles were boiled, with the odor of samp and shellfish rising and spreading in the light breeze; the oxen, tied to the wheels of the carts, chewing their cuds; and everywhere little knots of men, women and children, talking, laughing and eating their noon-day meal, while baskets and sacks of berries stood about, waiting to be loaded into the carts. The old order changes indeed, but the reward the Great Spirit is still offered when the maple leaves turn and the smoke from the calumet of Moshup hangs low in the western sky and spreads over the valleys in the blue, autumnal haze. And by the Island Indian and his generosity to his fellowmen is likewise extended, as he invites the world about him to come and share his cranberries.
Compiled by Hilary Wall