Who are the Wampanoag Indians?

Heather Phillips

The Wampanoag Indians are a Native American people that traditionally inhabited the lands of eastern Massachusetts, including those known today as Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard. The Wampanoag are considered to be part of the Algonquian nation. Historically agrarian, they lived in wetu, also known as wigwams, and hunted and fished to supplement their agricultural crops.

Wampanoag chiefs could be distinguished because their feathers would point straight up from their headbands.
Wampanoag chiefs could be distinguished because their feathers would point straight up from their headbands.

The earliest European contact with the Wampanoag Indians occurred around 1616 AD. Unfortunately for the tribe, the Europeans brought with them diseases that the Native Americans had no immunity against. This caused a series of epidemics that decimated the Wampanoag population, which had numbered as high as 40,000 members. By 1620, only about 2,000 mainland Wampanoag Indians survived.

One of the most well known Wampanoag Indians was Massasoit. Along with Squanto, an English-speaking Patuxet Indian, Massasoit helped the early Massachusetts Pilgrims to survive. It is Massasoit, Squanto, and many other Wampanoag warriors who celebrated the first Thanksgiving Day in the United States with the Pilgrims, after the settlers' first year of successful crop-raising and survival in Massachusetts.

Traditional Wampanoag life generally revolved around the seasons. In the warmer months, those on the mainland typically lived by the coastal areas. They caught fish and seafood, and raised and harvested crops. As the weather turned colder in the fall and winter, the people often moved further inland, and used hunting to provide food.

Wampanoag Indians were known for their ability to make well-crafted wampum, or beads used as money. In addition to being used as a form of Native American currency, wampum often told stories or represented members of a particular family. Due to its quality, other tribes often souhgt out or desired Wampanoag wampum.

Traditional Wampanoag dress usually included breechcloths with leggings for the men. Often, neither men nor women wore shirts, but they did wear deerskin robes during colder weather. Both men and women sometimes wore moccasins on their feet. Wampanoag men often wore beaded headbands with a couple of feathers in them. Wampanoag chiefs, or sachems, could usually be distinguished because their feathers would be pointing straight up from their headbands, unlike those of other male members.

Men often wore their hair in a traditional 'mohawk' style, with the sides of their heads shaved and a crest left on top. Sometimes they would leave only a scalplock — one long lock of hair left on top of the head. Women generally wore their hair long.

Some Wampanoag Indians have lived on Martha's Vineyard since before the arrival of Europeans, and continue to do so today. Their traditional name for the island is Noepe. Approximately 300 Wampanoag people currently there.

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