Wampanoag, Algonquian-speaking North American Indians who formerly occupied parts of what are now the states of Rhode Island and Massachusetts, including Martha’s Vineyard and adjacent islands.
The Wampanoag are one of many Nations of people all over North America who were here long before any Europeans arrived, and have survived until today. Many people use the word “Indian” to describe us, but we prefer to be called Native People. Today, about 4,000-5,000 Wampanoag live in New England.
Today there are about four to five thousand Wampanoag. Most live in Massachusetts where there are two federally acknowledged tribes, the Aquinnah Wampanoag and the Mashpee Wampanoag, as well as several smaller bands in areas like Herring Pond, Assonet, and Manomet.
The Wampanoag Tribe, also known as the People of the First Light, has inhabited present-day Massachusetts and Eastern Rhode Island for more than 12,000 years.
If you’d like to learn to say a Wampanoag word, Wuneekeesuq (pronounced similar to wuh-nee-kee-suck) is a friendly greeting that means “Good day!” You can also see a Wampanoag picture dictionary here. What was the Wampanoag culture like in the past?
From 1615 to 1619, the Wampanoag suffered an epidemic, long suspected to be smallpox. Modern research, however, has suggested that it may have been leptospirosis, a bacterial infection which can develop into Weil’s syndrome. It caused a high fatality rate and decimated the Wampanoag population.
Today, about 3,000 Wampanoag Indians still live in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. There is a reservation for the Wampanoag Indians on Martha’s Vineyard that was set up by the United States government.
Many Native Americans do not celebrate the arrival of the Pilgrims and other European settlers. To them, Thanksgiving Day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of their people, the theft of their lands, and the relentless assault on their cultures.
Wampanoag women wore knee -length skirts. Wampanoag men wore breechcloths with leggings. Neither women nor men had to wear shirts in the Wampanoag culture, but they would dress in deerskin mantles during cool weather. The Wampanoags also wore moccasins on their feet.
When the 350th anniversary of the Pilgrim landing was observed in 1970, state officials disinvited a leader of the Wampanoag Nation — the Native American tribe that helped the haggard newcomers survive their first bitter winter — after learning his speech would bemoan the disease, racism and oppression that followed
The food that the Wampanoag tribe ate included crops they raised consisting of the “three sisters” crops of corn, beans and squash together with Jerusalem artichoke, pumpkin, and zucchini. Meat included deer (venison), black bear, rabbit, grouse, squirrel, duck, geese, muskrat, beaver, otter, raccoon and turkey.
A Wampanoag home was called a wetu. Families erected these dwellings at their coastal planting grounds and lived in them throughout the growing season.
The Mayflower attempted to depart England on three occasions, once from Southampton on 5 August 1620; once from Darthmouth on 21 August 1620; and finally from Plymouth, England, on 6 September 1620.
As more European settlers arrived, they took over much of the land where the Wampanoag had lived for thousands of years. They tried to change the Wampanoag way of life and forced them to convert to their religion. Over time, the peace broke down. Thousands of Wampanoag had been killed, and many survivors were enslaved.
The Wampanoag suggested a mutually beneficial relationship, in which the Pilgrims would exchange European weaponry for Wampanoag for food. The feast of indigenous foods that took place in October 1621, after the harvest, was one of thanks, but it more notably symbolized the rare, peaceful coexistence of the two groups.