Wampanoag Essay Winner: Whales Are Important

“Each year the Young Native Writers Essay Contest encourages Native American students to write about their experiences as a member of the Native community and the culture that inspires them…Womsikuk James, Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) wrote about the whales of Noepe, which are seen on the tribal seal of the Aquinnah Wampanoag.” ICTMN

The Aquinnah Wampanoag tribal seal.

The Aquinnah Wampanoag tribal seal.

Excerpt: …Whales of Noepe Will Always Be Important By Womsikuk James,ICTMN

“The seal of my tribe, the Aquinnah Wampanoag, depicts a giant named Maushop holding a whale and standing on the sacred cliffs of Gay Head. The image of the whale is a part of the tribal seal because whales have been extremely important to the Aquinnah throughout their history.

The Aquinnah believe that Maushop created their island and the other islands off the coast of Cape Cod by shaking sand out of his massive moccasins. Sometimes, Maushop would give a drift whale to the people when they went hungry. Maushop and his wife, Squant, taught the first people of Noepe (Martha’s Vineyard, MA) how to hunt for whales, and instilled in them the value of using every part of them. Prior to the arrival of Europeans, whales were plentiful, and it was common for them to approach the shores of Noepe. Sometimes my ancestors hunted them using special spears and dugout canoes called mishoon.

Whales were a source of awe and would have been an important source of food for the people. Archaeologists have found ancient images of whales in effigies and portable petroglyphs carved by Native peoples throughout present-day coastal New England. Maushop was always hungry, and would often pick up whales and cook them on an eternally burning fire. The whales’ blood stained parts of the Gay Head cliffs red, and the ashes from the roasted whales made parts of the cliffs black. For millennia, the people of Noepe have made pottery from the multicolored clay found there.

Photo- Aquinnah Cliffs

Photo- Aquinnah Cliffs

 Another landmark event also occurred in 1851: Herman Melville published Moby Dick, which is considered one of the greatest Americans novels ever written. Moby Dick was based on Melville’s own experience on the whaler Acushnet and tales he had heard of the whaler Essex. One of the characters in Moby Dick is an Aquinnah Wampanoag harpooner named Tashtego. While the character of Tashtego is fictional, perhaps Melville came across an Aquinnah whaler during his journeys.

Photo- Isifacts.com

Photo- Isifacts.com

Today, my people continue to consider whales to be important, and the elders continue to tell young people tales of Maushop and the whales. The image of a whale, whether on an ancient effigy, a work of scrimshaw, or the Aquinnah tribal seal, is a unifying image for my people, and it provides visual reminders of what our culture was in the past and is today.”

“The legends teach me that we have always been here. Just take the Maushop legend for example. It says that Maushop led our people to Aquinnah to take us away from the fighting on the mainland. While he was leading us there he dragged his toe and broke off that piece of land that became Noepe. The fact that he created that island tells me that we have always been there, ever since that place was an island. Ever since that place was created.” ~Tobias Vanderhoop~Aquinnah Wampanoag

Category: Animals