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June 20, 2013

Councilman Jonathan Perry, Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah)

In the interview series Meet Native America, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian invites tribal leaders, cultural figures, and other interesting and accomplished Native individuals to introduce themselves and say a little about their lives and work. Together, their responses illustrate the diversity of the indigenous communities of the Western Hemisphere, as well as their shared concerns, and offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of Native peoples today. —Dennis Zotigh, NMAI 

Please introduce yourself with your name and title. 

Councilman Jonathan Perry.

Can you give us your Native name, its English translation and/or nickname?

My traditional name means “Laughing One.”

MNA Jonathan Perry 06-20-13
Councilman Jonathan Perry (Wampanoag) in traditional clothing. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Perry; used with permission.

What responsibilities do you have as a tribal leader? 

As a tribal councilman, I am responsible for working with our tribal chairperson, fellow council members, and traditional leaders to create a balanced, honest, and traditionally rooted government that promotes sovereignty, strength, and unity for all our tribal citizens and our future generations. As a representative of our tribal nation, and the northeastern Native community, I work hard to ensure that our eastern people are well respected, understood, and acknowledged in our homelands and abroad. 

How did your life experience prepare you to lead your tribe?

I spent a lot of time in my community and other Native communities, participating in gatherings, celebrations, and ceremonies. It gave me the opportunity to learn from elders and knowledge keepers. It instilled in me a great appreciation for our societies, and therefore encouraged me to gain an understanding and work towards strengthening our tribal nation. I have extensively studied our traditional government structure and leadership roles, and try to impart that quality into my own leadership position.

Who inspired you as a mentor?

I have been inspired by many people who have represented our Wampanoag Nation and eastern Native people in a strong, positive light. Some of those people have crossed over, and it is now our responsibility to be the inspirations and the mentors. I never had just one mentor, I had a community of them. The ones who immediately come to mind are the late Chief Donald Malonson, from the Aquinnah Wampanoag Nation; the late Tony Pollard, widely known as Nanepashemet, an author, artist, historian and relative; and the late Alice Lopez, from the Mashpee Wampanoag Nation, a greatly respected woman who valued community strength and traditions. The list goes on.

Are you a descendant of a historical leader? If so, who?

I am descended from numerous respected tribal leaders. Perhaps one of the best known would be Mittark [?–1683, sachem of the Wampanoag people of Aquinnah].

Where is your tribe located?

The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) is currently located on the island of Noepe (Martha’s Vineyard) off of the south coast of Massachusetts in the Atlantic Ocean.

Where was your tribe originally from?

Although our tribal lands are located within the town of Aquinnah today, our traditional territory covered Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, and the Elizabeth Islands; the region of Cape Cod; the South Shore of Massachusetts; the East Bay of Rhode Island, including Aquidneck Island; and following the Blackstone River Valley to the North River in Massachusetts.

Is there a functional, traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system?

Yes. We have a traditional sôtyum (chief) whose position is decided by the former sôtyum, supported by the community, and confirmed by the elder women. Our medicine person is chosen by the former medicine person and is supported and confirmed in the same fashion as the sôtyum.

What is a significant point in history from your tribe that you would like to share?

In our history, there have been many significant events. These span from pre-Contact to current events. In my opinion, the most important event was when the glaciers receded and our people were led to the place where we reside now by our great leader, Moshup; this is evidenced in our oral traditions.

A well-known event was King Phillip’s War (1675–78), the largest war—in the percentage of people directly affected—fought on American soil in history. This war demonstrated our efforts to enforce our right to self-determination of our borders, our government, and our own people.

Federal recognition, granted in 1987, and the achievement of self-governance were also highlights for our nation. In between these events, our people participated in the whaling and mercantile industries, as well as each military campaign that helped to shape America’s economy and standing from the global perspective.

Approximately how many members are in your tribe?

We have approximately 1,200 enrolled tribal members, but there are many more individuals and families that are enrolled in other nations, and even live in other societies around the world due to our involvement in numerous industries, such as the whaling industry, which spanned from the late 18th century into the early 20th century.

What are the criteria to become a member of your tribe?

To become enrolled in the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribal Nation, one must be a direct descendant from individuals counted on the 1870 Census of Aquinnah Indians.

Is your language still spoken on your homelands? If so, what percentage of your people would you estimate are fluent speakers?

Due to numerous colonizing efforts, few speakers were still practicing our language into the early 20th century. The Wampanoag language is the most recorded American Indian language throughout history. In the past 20 years, there has been a very strong effort through the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project to revitalize our language and produce fluent speakers. This project involves the Wampanoag communities of Aquinnah, Assonet, Herring Pond, and Mashpee. Many members within our communities, including myself, have taken and are currently taking classes.

What economic enterprises does your tribe own?

Our tribe promotes the success of small businesses owned by our individual tribal members. We have a number of properties that we rent to tribal members for their business locations; these include restaurants, coffee shops, clothing and retail stores, an education center, and a water-quality laboratory. We also support and promote the Aquinnah Cultural Center.

What annual events does your tribe sponsor?

Each April, we host the Spring Social. All members of the Native community and their families are invited to feast, sing, dance, and enjoy the celebration to welcome the spring season.

In September, we host our annual powwow overlooking the massive clay cliffs of Aquinnah. Each night of the powwow, we host a feast, and Native people throughout Turtle Island are always welcome.

In October, we celebrate Cranberry Day, when our children are excused from school and we harvest wild cranberries as a community. We have been celebrating this harvest for thousands of years, and it is well recorded in the town history.

Recently, through the efforts of our tribal Historic Preservation Office, we have hosted monthly thanksgivings, for our community members and their families to come together to acknowledge the lunar phases, and each monthly bounty they bring. We encourage our tribal members to bring the foods of that season to be incorporated into a healthy dish.

What attractions are available for visitors on your land?

If you come to the island of Martha’s Vineyard, you must visit the beautiful clay cliffs of Aquinnah, which are part of our tribal lands. For thousands of years, our ancestors have respected this natural—and now national—landmark, which is featured prominently in our oral traditions. The clay has been used in our artwork and is considered sacred amongst our people. Some of our tribal members have gift and cultural shops and restaurants at the top of the clay cliffs; these businesses sell the artwork of tribal members and some of our traditional foods.

Right near the shops is the Aquinnah Cultural Center, a small museum that holds collections from some of our tribal families. There are exhibits dedicated to oral histories from our elders, as well as items pertaining to our seafaring and whaling history.

How is your tribal government set up?

We have a tribal council of seven, including four elected officials: a chair, vice-chair, treasurer, and secretary. Our sôtyum, and medicine person both have permanent seats on the council. Our chairperson’s position is much like that of a full-time employee for the tribe.

How often are elected leaders chosen?

All councilmembers, including the officers and the chairperson, are on a three-year staggered term. There is an election each November when one-third of the council members are up for election.

How often does your tribal council meet?

The tribal council meets twice monthly and as needed for additional meetings. There are four general membership meetings each year, when the entire tribal body is encouraged to attend.

How does your tribe deal with the U.S./Canada as a sovereign nation?

Our tribe has a very strong government-to-government relationship with the United States. We are always striving for a stronger government-to-government relationship with the State of Massachusetts. We feel that our sovereign rights are of the utmost importance, and we feel that we have the right to exercise them in a careful, well thought out manner.

What message would you like to share with the youth of your tribecommunity? 

Serving on the Tribal Council, and representing our tribe, I try to spend time with our youth to show them the significance of giving back to their community. It’s important to spend time embracing our culture, knowledge, and history. It’s even more important to pass that knowledge down to the future youth.

I encourage our tribal youth to take pride in learning as much about our traditions and culture as possible, as I feel that this is their responsibility to the tribe, and it will soon be their turn to gain respect  and support not only within our own nation, but amongst other nations. It’s imperative for elected tribal leaders to spend time with their tribal youth, as those youth need to be encouraged to be the future leaders.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

One thing that I haven’t touched upon is the importance of our kinship ties with other tribal nations. For instance, we are very closely related to many of the Eastern Algonkian tribal nations, including the Pennacook, Penobscot, and Mi’kmaq; those who are now based in other parts of the country, such as the Stockbridge-Munsee and the Lenape people; as well as many Canadian First Nations.

It is important to acknowledge and recognize the relationships that we have with these people, as they are our relatives and they supported and sometimes protected our people during King Phillip’s War and other times of conflict. I feel that our nation is grateful to these sister nations for their support and sacrifice. Moving forward, I feel that we as Native nations need to maintain and further strengthen not only our governmental ties, but more importantly, our cultural and kinship ties with one another. 

Other interviews in this series: 
Ben Shelley, president of the Navajo Nation 
John Sirois, Chairman, Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation 
Thurman Cournoyer Sr., Yankton Sioux Tribal Chairman


Series banner, from left to right: Representative Ponka-We Victors (Tohono O’odham/Southern Ponca) taking the oath of office in the Kansas House of Representatives; photo courtesy of Kansas Rep. Scott Schwab. Bird Runningwater (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache) at the Sundance Film Festival; photo courtesy of WireImage. Sergeant Debra Mooney (Choctaw) at the powwow in Al Taqaddum Air Force Base, Iraq, 2004; photo courtesy of Sgt. Debra Mooney. Councilman Jonathan Perry (Wampanoag) in traditional clothing; photo courtesy of Jonathan Perry. Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne/Hodulgee Muscogee) at Blackhorse et. al. v. Pro Football, Inc., press conference, U.S. Patent and Trade Office, February 7, 2013; photo courtesy of Mary Phillips. All images used with permission. 


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