The central figure in the legends of the Gay Head Wampanoags is a giant named Moshup . He and his wife Squant had 12 beautiful daughters and they lived together happily on the Gay Head cliffs. Today two daughters of Moshup still work and live on the Cliffs. Sisters Adriana Ignacio and Berta Welch run stores across the way from each other. This weekend they took a break to talk about growing up as members of the tribe, the meaning of sisterhood and what’s cooking for dinner.
Interviews by Julia Rappaport
I was born here on the Island and my mother was. She has passed on. She was part of the Vanderhoop family and of course, she was a Gay Head Wampanoag. My father was from Taxco, Mexico. He was a jeweler in the late forties in Taxco and he came back here to live, which was a real culture shock for him because he had to learn how to scallop and how to do all of that stuff. He had a shop in Edgartown for many, many years and my mother always had a shop on the Cliffs. It’s actually the shop that my sisters Carla and Berta now own. It’s always been there. Prior to my mother’s shop, it was her older sister’s. They made their own pottery from the clay cliffs. She actually put herself through college that way.
We all knew each other, of course. With a few exceptions, we were all Wampanoags. We all went to the one-room schoolhouse. We were in and out of each other’s houses, we were up and down the road, we were on the beaches, up and down the Cliffs. I don’t think our parents ever worried or wondered where we were. We couldn’t have gotten into too much trouble.
So I grew up here and in Taxco, Mexico. I went to school at the one-room schoolhouse here in Gay Head. And then from here, I went to the Tisbury junior high. Going to Vineyard Haven, it may as well have been another country because none of these people were familiar to me. None of them at all. It was very, very different. I went to school in little ankle socks and brown lace-up shoes and a smock dress to sixth grade. They were not dressed like that. It was the early, mid sixties and the girls were definitely much more sophisticated than I was. Then I went to the regional high through my junior year of high school. I finished my senior year of high school at an all-Indian arts school in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
It was the best thing that ever happened to me. I met my husband there. We actually got married here in 1970 at the Baptist Church in Aquinnah. Then Bruce, who is also a jeweler, he helped my father out in the shop in Edgartown. We finally made the commitment to move here in 1986. We built our house and raised our daughters here.
I am the oldest and there’s four of us. Myself, my sister Carla Cuch and then my brother, David Giles. We all have Spanish names. And then Berta Welch is my youngest sister. I am ten years older than Berta. My parents had four children in ten years and they were older, considering the times. My parents were 33 when they started having children. They didn’t get married until they were 31 or 32. Four children in ten years plus running the shop at the Cliffs plus running the shop in Edgartown plus going to Mexico! And Berta was born in July! I remember taking care of Berta as a baby so my mother could run the other shops. Now that I’ve had my own children, I can’t imagine a week after having a baby going and running my own business.
There’s ten years between us, so Berta was still very young when I was a teenager. I probably left her in my wake. I can always picture her little face if I brought a boyfriend home. She was always in the middle of us and there was no getting rid of her. She came to live with Bruce and me when we were living in Santa Fe in 1978. She finished high school in Santa Fe. Having to be the adult with a teenager, that put a little strain on us, to say, No you cannot stay out all night, and that kind of thing. But it was fun.
In many, many ways, she’s the backbone of this family. She’s the feistiest. She’s the engine behind getting things done. Her energy is amazing. The amount of stuff she can get done within any given day is just mind boggling. She serves on several committees between the town and the tribe. She’s also the chair of the Aquinnah Cultural Center, which is our new museum up on the Cliffs. I serve on the committee also and lots of times, she and I have to do a lot of the work. But it works out.
And then we both work up on the Cliffs. I inherited my shop from my aunt and uncle, Lucille and Alfred Vanderhoop. We’re really mindful that we don’t step on each other’s toes. We give each other ideas, we make it work. We’re both committed to our businesses up there and the importance of having those shops up on the Cliffs. Historically, all of those little shops have been owned by Wampanoag people. The tourism industry for Gay Head started when they brought over the steamboat from New Bedford. The tribal people, men in their oxcarts, used to go pick them up over there at Pilot’s Landing over on the North Shore and then bring them up to the lighthouse. The Wampanoag women would have cooked and would serve them lunch or dinner and they’d be selling their Gay Head clay pots, or their beadwork, or their dolls that they had made. And there used to be little tables with umbrellas up there and my aunt’s shop, which is now Berta and Carla’s shop, which I think was the first building up there, with the exception of the Aquinnah Shop. This is what’s evolved from that.
We see each other every day. We talk to each other every day. We go to each other’s houses for dinner almost every day. It’s 15 people, basically. It’s never less than ten because it also includes my daughter, Ona, and her family. It includes Amara and her boyfriend, Todd. All of Berta’s family, which is four. Carla’s here and then Bruce and myself. And you put that all together, it’s like you can’t invite anybody else. The table can’t fit the family alone. In the summertime, many nights we’re not eating until 8:30, which the men have a really hard time with. We all do the cooking and Berta has the largest house, so many a time, we end up at their house. It’s fun.
We’re very, very fortunate, the four of us. We have made a commitment to each other as siblings, which I’m finding more and more fascinating because I realize that a lot of families do not enjoy that. When our mother passed on, we inherited properties here in Aquinnah and when working all that out, we’ve just been mindful of each other’s feelings. Berta kind of commandeered the whole thing, all of the real estate transactions. She sort of delegates responsibilities to each and every one of us. I think she enjoys it a lot. I have to put the brakes to her every once and awhile. I’m the voice of reason, I’d like to say. We all have families, we all have different things that we like, different interests, but, as you noticed as you came in, all of those houses, those are all my siblings. We all live within an acre of each other, basically.
Berta and Carla and David, we’re always there for each other, without exception. I underwent breast cancer back in 1991 and that was probably one of the first sort of tragedies that hit our family. That’s when you start learning how to really survive and you can’t do it alone. You need your family, you need your friends, you need your community and that’s something that will never, never leave me. Some people would think I was dying because I had breast cancer. Other people’s attitudes, and I think this was probably Berta’s and my family’s and my mother’s and my aunts’ attitude was, you’re gonna survive this. That’s all there is to it.
My memory of Adriana is her fixing her hair in the years of big curlers and hairdos. And having the girlfriends driving up in the car and her being able to go out. And Lulu playing in the background. I still know a lot of that music, they were always playing music.
By the time I was growing up, those awful teenage years, both my sisters were living in Utah. My freshman and sophomore year I went to the high school here. Then I went to live with my sister Carla and her family who were living in Salt Lake City. I went to school in Salt Lake City for a year, then I moved to New Mexico with Adriana and her family and I finished high school in Santa Fe.
I graduated in Santa Fe and then went to school in Rhode Island and reconnected with my husband, he was from Rhode Island. We married in 1980 and my mother was getting too old really to be running the business here. She needed more and more help and we started looking at the Island, I started looking at the Island very differently. I think getting ready to start a family and again, being close to my mother and the family, was very attractive. We had bought a house in Rhode Island and Vern’s family is close, but not like ours. It just seemed like the natural thing to do was to come and help my mother.
We were married here in 1980 and then in 1982, we moved here permanently. In 1985 Giles was born and we were building our house. Up until then, we were living in my family home, which wasn’t the easiest thing. You can be a close family, but you shouldn’t start off living with your mother in a new marriage. So I said to my mother, If you want us to stay, you’re going to have to subdivide our land. It really was the beginning of everybody moving back. Adriana was the next one on a permanent basis and then Carla. David and I were the ones that were here. And everybody helped each other build. There was that also, that cooperation.
Adriana was working at Bramhall and Dunn, she had managed there for a number of years. She liked it there, but it was the drive to Vineyard Haven daily. I think it was just time for her to use her skills. Our aunt was losing her vision and a short while after that, was diagnosed with cancer. So, she needed Adriana’s help. She took it over and changed it dramatically. It went from really a curio-type business to what now, with her daughters’ influence, is also a women’s clothing shop. It was all about family need. Our aunt was losing her vision.
It’s fun. I run down there and say, So, how are you? Did you drink too much wine last night? Or, Don’t eat that, it’s really not good for you.
It’s nice, its still like being at home. You can still check in and see what’s going on and who’s cooking dinner tonight. My motto is everybody has to eat, but not everybody has to cook. I don’t always feel like entertaining, but when you have family, it doesn’t feel like entertaining. You’re not having to place the place settings just so. But we do have order. We do have candles going. We do have a lot of good, good conversation. When we’re all very busy, like August, we hardly ever eat before 8:30, which everybody comments on as we’re sitting down. Each of us is known for a type of cooking, certain recipes, and everybody just takes turns. I do a lot of grilling where Carla does these intriguing salads where Adriana has a lot more spice and flair. My mother and father always had somebody else at that table with us. It wasn’t just on the holidays. What may have been a factor was that Gay Head then could be very lonely. There’s not anything else going on, right? That could be a positive and a negative, but this is the positive. It brings friends and family together.
We grew up with my mother’s siblings being very much part of our everyday life. It was very unusual, particularly at my mother’s house, not to have one or two of them come through. One of the good things is that you’re supposed to be able to really depend on your family through crisis. You don’t always get that through friendship. Some people are just too busy or too involved in their own things. Families really stop and do what needs to get done and be done. I treasure my friendships from here and across the country, but it’s really your family that comes to the rescue when needed.
Our mom died in 2001 and that has been a really awful experience. Not just losing her, but having to deal with the financial squeeze that we have been put in. That part has not been fun at all and I can see where families break up because if you don’t have a good communication and a real care for another’s well being, then it becomes a very, very, very unhealthy way of looking at things. From there, you can see where the bickering starts and the mistrust. We are coming from a point of view where we have to be responsible for each other, not just ourselves, but the well being of the other. Each one of us has to make it through this.
At one time, Adriana ran a program here, an Indian education program. She has some really strong elements that she brings to the [Aquinnah] Cultural Center. My interest was knowing the need to continually make the public aware of our identity and that we’re still here. But I’m the chairperson, so I have it up on her this time! It’s not about age this time, I got the vote!
She’s very honest, painfully so. And very nurturing, she’s just a very real person. She’s strong, not harsh. She can have a real sense of leadership, of command. Adriana wasn’t well for awhile there and I don’t want to focus on that, but that was a real eye-opener, how life can change day to day.
Maybe Adriana told you this, but we were at old-time friend’s of my aunt and uncle’s the other night. Several times it came up. The other ladies said, Wow, you girls are all friends, you’re sisters, but you’re friends. How is that?
But it’s never been anything else but. I feel so fortunate. How boring life would be without family.