Last week’s Gazette Chronicle by Hilary Wall on Vineyard names made me think about the preponderance of places named by the original Oak Bluffs people. With so many of our streets derived from the Algonquin language I took for granted that Oak Bluffs was a center for the Island Wampanoags. A cursory amount of research surprised me. First, we didn’t have a large native population during the ‘contact’ period (when the Europeans came). Second, Ogkeshkuppe was subordinate to the Takemmy and Nunnepog sachems to the south.

Our rental home on Dukes County avenue during my first summer here was two doors down from the esteemed Napoleon Madison who the parents reverentially introduced us to as chief of the tribe (he was actually the Medicine Man). The kindly old man always smiled and waved and didn’t mind putting on his spectacular headdress until the adults stopped us from pestering him. That formed a lasting impression on me that Oak Bluffs was the center of the original people’s universe. I wouldn’t bet cash, but while it seems our tiny town has more native names than the other towns it was actually white men who provided the appellations.

Farm Neck was originally Ogisske, for example. Thomas Mayhew changed the name when he sold it to John Daggett, our first white settler. Tikhoma was the area at the head of the Lagoon. Quatapog (today Quantapog) was a small pond at Farm Neck, and Quosaquannes is the land we call East Chop.

The Algonquian named places and villages along the coast and ponds and estuaries, many in locations where shellfish were available. Sengekontacket is one of those and so is Pohqu-Auke (renamed Pecoy Point) that loosely translates to where we get shellfish. Another is Weatauque (place of the boundary spring), the Land Bank’s Weahtaqua Springs Preserve at the bottom of the lagoon. Generally, according to George R. Stewart’s Names on the Land, our indigenous ancestors only bothered naming places for what occurred there. Those who came later used names for identification, location or ownership.

Part of the charisma of Oak Bluffs comes from our characters. Some were historically significant such as our past black politicians, some who shared the heritage of the protectors of the land such as Napoleon Madison, and some who were, well, just nice. Philip Lockwood Swift was one of those. You probably knew Phil like I did; the thin dude with the dreads down at Mahoney’s nursery who knew everything about plants that you needed to know and who would stop what he was doing, smile and tell you. Phil told me how big and deep to dig a hole for the pear trees the kids gave me one Father’s Day, which spikes to use for fertilizer and, years later when pears didn’t grow, how to prune it.

Thanks to Phil I now have blueberries, grapes, vegetables and, amazingly enough, beach plums and now beach plum jelly. If it grew, Phil knew how and quietly explained it to talentless folks with short attention spans. I regret not taking time to get to know more about Philip Swift. He died on Feb. 13, seven months before his 66th birthday. Phil was born in New Bedford and found his way to the Island after adventures in Jamaica where he discovered reggae music and adopted his distinctive hair style with those impossibly long, blonde and graying dreadlocks. He married his wife Linda on the shores of Lagoon Pond and was a fan of woodworking, especially guitars. Philip L. Swift was a quiet, accommodating, gentle man. Condolences to his family and adopted family at Jardin Mahoney. I hope he rests as he lived, in peace.

Stan Nelson is the featured guest for next week’s Tuesdays in the Newsroom here at the Gazette. The Emmy-winning filmmaker will be discussing his work on over two dozen films, particularly his newest, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution. Show time is at 5:30 p.m., and remember seating is limited.

The Oak Bluffs Fireworks organizers are looking for a sponsor to replace Black Entertainment Television. More on this later. The pinkletinks have spoken so spring beckons. Back Door Donuts reopens on April 15.

Information on the Wampanoag (Wôpanâak) language is at, where you can learn that skunk (Sukôk) means ‘Ejects body fluid’.

Keep your foot on a rock.

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