Public Media Arts Hub

Wampanoag descendants revive history of Native culture on Martha's Vineyard


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: Martha's Vineyard, with its beautiful shorelines and farmland, has long been a summer destination. But most visitors know little about the history of its Wampanoag people.

A group on the island is reviving that history by educating children and adults about the Native culture and traditions, while also aiming to protect our increasingly challenged planet.

Special correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault reports for our Race Matters Solutions and arts and culture series, Canvas.

Person: I'm grateful for the smells that we have at Sassafras.

Charlayne Hunter-Gault: Gathering around and sharing expressions of gratitude, a summer camp tradition many places.

David Two Arrows Vanderhoop, Sassafras Earth Education: I'm thankful for grandfather sun. Good morning, grandfather sun.

Charlayne Hunter-Gault: But this summer camp, run by the nonprofit group Sassafras Earth Education on the island of Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, is taking a different approach towards gratitude. These campers are also learning a people's history largely erased.

Saskia Vanderhoop, Sassafras Earth Education: Right here. This will be your land always and forever.

Charlayne Hunter-Gault: David Two Arrows Vanderhoop and wife Saskia Vanderhoop started the camp and the larger Sassafras organization in 2003.

David Vanderhoop dates his Wampanoag ancestors, People of the First Light, back thousands of years. Saskia Vanderhoop, who grew up in the Netherlands, and David have raised their five children in the Wampanoag tradition.

And did you cook in here?

David Two Arrows Vanderhoop: Yes. And we had a stove over here. We had beds here. We had a little table there that kids would do the homework on, everything.

Charlayne Hunter-Gault: Twenty-two-year-old daughter Nanauwe grew up on this land and from the age of 3 to 8 lived in this teepee with four members of her family, while her father, David, worked on the crumbling home he inherited from his grandfather in 2001.

Nanauwe integrates Native values in her sing to campers that include Wampanoags and children of all races, sometimes from off the island.

Nanauwe Vanderhoop, Sassafras Earth Education: The way that I grew up, it gave me my purpose and it gave me a connection to my ancestors and it gave me a connection to my roots. And those are the things that I hold most close to my heart and most close to my spirit.

Charlayne Hunter-Gault: The children learn the proper way to make a fire.


Charlayne Hunter-Gault: The artwork done at Sassafras demonstrates the reverence for natural life and beauty of the land, 12 acres, which is part of a restoration project that returns the land to pre-colonial values and practices by planting food forests and traditional gardens and clearing invasive growth.

David Two Arrows Vanderhoop: We are going to take the silent trail down this morning, OK? Let's get our backpacks.

Charlayne Hunter-Gault: The campers start their day following the path of the Wampanoag ancestors, walking in silence on the sacred land.

I made the same walk with Saskia and David Two Arrows Vanderhoop to talk to them about their mission, which has now served thousands of people over almost two decades and is growing to include more education and outreach programs, and supporting the people on Noepe, the Wampanoag name for Martha's Vineyard.

That land remained in their control even after the arrival of the Pilgrims there in 1620, but was bought in 1642 by a colonizer for 40 shillings and two raccoon caps.

David and Saskia Vanderhoop, thank you so much for joining us.

I want to talk about everything we have seen today, but I want to start first with you, David Vanderhoop. Tell me about that name, where it comes from.

David Two Arrows Vanderhoop: Back in the late 1700s, a merchant mariner came to what was then called Martha's Vineyard. His son was also a merchant marine, sailed all over, but came up the East Coast, landed on Martha's Vineyard, and met my great-great-great-grandmother.

Charlayne Hunter-Gault: So you go way back?

David Two Arrows Vanderhoop: Yes. We are -- the Wampanoags are matriarchal society. So they go back as much as much as 14,000, 15,000 years right here. The Wampanoag tribe used to inhabit this whole island.

Charlayne Hunter-Gault: The entire island?

David Two Arrows Vanderhoop: The entire island was Wampanoag territory.

Charlayne Hunter-Gault: I remember coming here in the early '70s. What was that time like for your tribe? How were Native Americans, Wampanoags dealt with on the island?

David Two Arrows Vanderhoop: I was made fun of. I was called a dumb Indian. I was sent to the back of the room many a times.

Charlayne Hunter-Gault: By your teacher?

David Two Arrows Vanderhoop: Yes. And...

Charlayne Hunter-Gault: Were you the only Native American in there, or...

David Two Arrows Vanderhoop: In my class? Yes.

Charlayne Hunter-Gault: If everybody else was treating him and the other Wampanoags like they were second class or worse, how did you end up marrying one?

Saskia Vanderhoop: Well, I came here from the Netherlands. And so I think I had a completely different perspective. And I think that I was open-minded.

We had conversations about how important it is to teach children from a young age, and especially indigenous children, what they deserve to know, which is their birthright, which is a deep connection and a profound connection with the natural world and, from there, give them self-confidence.

There is a solution in the natural world. For every ailment, the plants have an answer, because that is how the world was created. And I firmly believe this to be true. We really began in 2003 making them understand of how you can build a relationship with everything around you and how you can become a part of the ecosystem and not stand apart from it.

People did not understand the need for nature connection. I think climate change was still too far away, looming in the distance, and people just didn't understand it.

Charlayne Hunter-Gault: Finally, let me ask you this.

We hear so much debate these days about teaching history. And there are moves afoot to limit or even erase some of the education that's going on in the classrooms about Black people and people of color.

What are your thoughts about what to do about this? And do you see any way of narrowing the divide? Because it, in fact, seems to be getting wider. What is the solution to this?

David Two Arrows Vanderhoop: We need to start telling the truth. We need to bring the truth in history into the classrooms. We give it here at Sassafras Earth Education.

We talk about contemporary issues. We tell them the truth, and we found out that the kids can handle it.

Charlayne Hunter-Gault: I think I saw somewhere you said making the unseen seen again.

Thank you so very much for, A, what you were doing, and for sharing it with us.

Amna Nawaz: And, online, Charlayne Hunter-Gault also recently hosted an in-depth conversation about race with experts and journalists, including "Washington Week" moderator Yamiche Alcindor and "NewsHour" regulars David Brooks and Jonathan Capehart.

You can find the full discussion from this year's Hutchins Forum. That's on our Web site,

Support Canvas

Sustain our coverage of culture, arts and literature.

Send Us Your Ideas
Let us know what you'd like to see on ArtsCanvas. Your thoughts and opinions matter.