Luther Madison: 1924-2009

Luther Madison was Medicine Man to his people, the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), for decades until his death last Thursday. This role he inherited from his father Luther took to heart, not only in traditional and ceremonial ways but also in everyday acts of gentle healing that reached beyond the bounds of tribe and town.

Native people lost much in the wake of European arrivals. People were lost, knowledge was lost, and pride was lost. Luther Madison was a leader in a generation that turned the tide on that loss.

He served on the tribal council of the first federally recognized tribe in Massachusetts. He served as a town selectman and an assessor. He drove a school bus, he blessed the ambulance, and of course, he baked pies. His pies were a restorative renowned to those lucky enough to find a slice still for sale in his Aquinnah Shop.

As outsiders were increasingly aware of and interested in native American culture, many tribal people across the country have grown skeptical of this interest as a new exploitation. Miscommunications and misunderstandings have festered.

Yet Luther Madison, a tribal elder who knew disease from a young age, seemed to have developed an insight about the value of human life and community peace that informed his position. In his easy way, Mr. Madison was a Medicine Man who sought harmony among the people who share his ancestral homeland. Medicine, after all, is about the body, the spirit, about finding balance in the person and with the environment.

It was altogether fitting that as a crowd gathered to celebrate the Medicine Man’s life and to help his journey continue into the spirit world, a red-tailed hawk soared over the crowd.