Tribal Member Has Deep Sense of Place


Durwood (Woody) Vanderhoop knows all too well the encroaching pressures imposed on the average Vineyard resident - like a lack of affordable housing, eroding environmental resources and a loss of cultural traditions.

They are the same things his ancestors in the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) have been struggling with for the last 350 years.

"It's exactly what happened to my people when the rules started changing with the arrival of the first colonists out here," said Mr. Vanderhoop, an elected member of the tribal governing council. "I'm not in any way looking for sympathy, or anything like that. But trying to maintain a sense of place and culture - those are things we've been dealing with for a long time."

The Wampanoags trace their existence back 10,000 years on the Vineyard - which they called Noepe - but by the 1800s only three tribal communities were left: in Gay Head, Chappaquiddick, and Christiantown. The remaining tribal members eventually settled in Aquinnah, and, roughly 20 years ago, became the only federally recognized tribe in the commonwealth.


"It took a real sacrifice for my people to remain here," Mr. Vanderhoop said last week, sitting in the sun on the deck of tribal headquarters off Black Brook Road. "I try to think about what it would have been like for them, because this can be a really tough place to live."

But despite the constant changes and challenges, Mr. Vanderhoop and his fellow tribal members have not given up. He expressed faith in the future of both the tribe and Island.

"It's always going to be hard. But I hope that with careful planning and a lot of thought and dedication, we will be able to make a good living out here for ourselves, and for the generations to come," he said.

"That's what the Island Plan is all about."

A two-year planning effort launched by the Martha's Vineyard Commission, the Island Plan will attempt to draft a blueprint for the future of the Vineyard based on feedback from the community. The commission will hold its second public forum on the plan at the Tisbury Senior Center on Wednesday from 5 to 7 p.m.

Mr. Vanderhoop recently rejoined the 19-member steering committee for the Island Plan and, in many ways, is the perfect person to be involved in the effort. Born and raised in Aquinnah, he was graduated from Dartmouth College and later moved back to the Island to work for the tribe.

Now 31, he holds the title of tribal planner - where he does on a smaller scale every day what the commission is hoping to accomplish Islandwide.

Mr. Vanderhoop said he spends most of his time thinking about what he wants the Island to look like for the next generation of Wampanoags and other Vineyard residents.

"One of my sisters is getting married and having a child, and I don't know what her fate may be," said Mr. Vanderhoop, whose piercing blue eyes bring an added level of gravity to his carefully measured speech. "It's something I wonder about every day. It's a burden I carry and take very seriously."

Just as some people say the Island is a microcosm of the rest of the country, the tribe can serve as a microcosm for the Vineyard, Mr. Vanderhoop said. And, in terms of planning for the future, the tribe appears to be a few steps ahead of the pack.

Its development patterns, which fit many of the smart growth principles embraced by the commission, could almost serve as a model for the Islandwide planning efforts. Of the tribe's roughly 480 acres, less than 100 are identified as developable.

Completed more than 10 years ago, the tribal housing development was the first family affordable housing project on the Island. And Mr. Vanderhoop said the tribe in a 1993 master plan decided to protect from development certain areas within the Common Lands that contained important natural resources - like blueberries, cranberries, and beach plum.

The tribal headquarters was also one of the first commercial buildings on the Island to incorporate green design techniques, and the tribe has recently begun the permitting process to consider installation of a wind turbine on tribal lands.

Mr. Vanderhoop said his people have learned to adapt to changes both across the Island and in the larger world. But he stressed that any one group cannot work in isolation, and that the many governments on the Vineyard must work to assist one another. Partnering together, for instance, he believes the town and tribe could make Aquinnah the first energy-independent community in the nation.

"Many of us are very set on where one thing ends the other begins; we're very provincial at times," Mr. Vanderhoop said. "We need to look past the minor differences we might have, and look instead at interesting new ideas and solutions to some of the many problems that we share," he continued.

"If we're putting together a plan for the Island, we ought to be looking at these partnerships as a way to effect some change," he said. "Because if you can't share your vision and needs, you will have difficulty accomplishing much of anything."

Along with an ability to adapt, it is also vital to maintain a sense of culture, history and tradition, Mr. Vanderhoop said. Younger tribal members are now working to relearn the Wampanoag language, and to retain knowledge of tribal songs and oral traditions, as well as of the Island's natural resources.

Mr. Vanderhoop said he is particularly distressed by the demise of the fishing stocks around the Vineyard - a primary means by which Wampanoags sustained themselves for thousands of years.

"It's a big deal, when you're wishing to pass on knowledge to the next generation, but there are no fish left," he said, noting that as a child roughly 90 per cent of his meals came straight out of Island waters. "When you sit down and listen to some of the stories told by my father, grandfather and other elders, you really have to be concerned."

Started a little over three years ago, the Wampanoag Aquinnah Shellfish hatchery, if successful over the long term, could provide steady employment and food while also helping restore the ecology of Menemsha Pond. And Mr. Vanderhoop said that fishing and hunting, as well as picking berries, are all ways to foster a spiritual connection with the land.

"Part of our view is that people and land are pretty much one and the same," Mr. Vanderhoop said. "We're of this land, and our people who have passed on have gone back to it."

It is important to retain members who have grown up within the tribe - just as it is important across the Island to keep young Vineyard residents - because they are the ones who can cultivate the culture. Many of the newer people coming to the Island today do not share the same traditional values, Mr. Vanderhoop said.

"I'm not the first to say it, but there are people now who, as soon as they move in, they put up a new fence. And as you look around the Island today, and don't know many of our neighbors, you should recognize that as a signal that some things are about to change," he said. "I hate to dismiss a whole group of people out of hand, but I really hope the people who come here take the time to pay attention and learn why and how the locals live - and maybe take a cue from that and try to help preserve the things that are important."

Affordable housing is the biggest issue he faces as the tribal planner, and was instrumental in his own ability to stay on the Vineyard. His name in 2001 was one of the first drawn from a hat in a lottery for residential homesites.

"I'm very fortunate, and very blessed with that opportunity. And I have felt firsthand how programs like that can affect people's lives," Mr. Vanderhoop said. "If you don't have prospects for ever being established here, then any motivation for staying around is minimal."

He tries to bring a perspective of and appreciation for the past to the planning process currently underway.

"I've had a certain amount of values instilled in me from the elders of our tribe, which I try to keep with me," he said. "Our ancestors came here and looked upon the land and decided this was a place they were going to make a living. I try to think why," he continued.

"And I'm really humbled sometimes when I look out at the cliffs, or just even around the town from up high," Mr. Vanderhoop said. "To me it's the most beautiful place in the world."