Traditions: Cranberry Day Is Celebration of Great Spirit


On the second Tuesday of the month, as they have been doing for centuries, since even before explorer Bartho-lomew Gosnold came upon the Vineyard, Island Wampanoags will celebrate Cranberry Day, the harvesting of the last fruit of the season.

Sometimes referred to as the Red Harvest, the day is a tribute to the Great Spirit and is one of the most important Wampanoag celebrations.

Tribal chairman Beverly Wright remembers waiting on State Road for Granville Belain to pull up with his oxcart to pick up tribal children and bring them along ancient trails to the bog at Lobsterville. Her grandfather, tribal chief Harrison Vanderhoop, Jesse Smalley, Walter Manning and Leonard Vanderhoop would disappear over the dunes and return with gunny sacks filled with cranberries.

"That's what would get us through the winter," she says. The cranberries, once important to the economy of the tribe, were sold and traded for staples. "It reminds us how it was when our ancestors did not have an abundance of food."

"We are carrying on the traditions I learned from my grandfather and my mother. And now I'm passing them on to my grandchildren," Ms. Wright adds.

Then as now, after collecting the cranberries in the morning, a bonfire would be built, a potluck lunch served, the drums sounded and stories of traditions and history shared.

There is the legend of Moshup who, tired of battle and weary of European explorers, dragged his toe along the shoreline creating Noepe, where he, his wife Squant and their 12 sons and 12 daughters came to settle; and the legend of Aquinnah's wild cranberry bogs, created after a struggle between good and evil in which the god-fearing man, just about to give up, was replenished by a berry brought to him by a bird, and instead triumphed. The bird dropped the berries which seeded the first cranberry bog.

Before written histories, the tribe relied on the telling and retelling of stories to pass on its traditions and culture. "We are an oral people," Ms. Wright says.

There are stories of how the celebration used to signify the beginning of the winter season, when tribal members moved back from the shore to prepare for the cold season, and more contemporary stories of when the cranberry bog, about the size of three football fields, was nearly ruined by the hurricane of 1938.

There are Wampanoags who remember getting up at four in the morning to harvest cranberries, when no houses could be seen from the bogs and when the harvested cranberries would form piles several feet deep. Tribal children, who are excused from school for the day, listen and take note.

"It's meaningful to me because when I grow up and have kids of my own I'll do the same for them," said 14-year-old Sophia Welch, daughter of Berta and Vernon Welch of Aquinnah.

"To me it's really important traditionally and culturally," says Chris Roper, the 15-year-old son of Paul Manning. "It's a link with my heritage."

Chris is a member of the Black Brook Drummers who play at the potluck dinner to which all Islanders are invited. "I'd like to think the tribe will always maintain its tradition. For all that's been lost, we are regaining a sense of who we are, a sense of the past 200 years." He talks of rebirth, citing the reintroduction of the Wamp-anoag language which he is learning. "It gives me a sense of who I am and of my identity."

On Tuesday, families with names such as Widdiss, Malonson, Manning, Belain, Vanderhoop and Madison will spend the morning at the bogs at Lobsterville. The cranberries, which are not harvested for commercial use and have never been cultivated, will be gathered by the hand or the scoop and put into baskets.

Afterward, at noon, tribal members (approximately 300 of the 1,000 Wampanoag members live on-Island) will have lunch on the dunes by the West Basin intersection, socializing around the grill and campfire as tribal children play games. Later that night, at seven o'clock in the multipurpose room of the tribal center, the open invitation potluck dinner will most likely include succotash, corn, quahaug and clam chowder. There will be traditional drumming and Native American dances.

"We took care of the land, only taking what we needed," Ms. Wright says. "As a native people the value comes from recognizing that the land always provided for us."