Sovereign Nation

From Gazette editions of November, 1983:

The Wampanoag Tribal Council, the Gay Head Taxpayers Association, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the town of Gay Head signed formal settlement papers in the Indian land claim suit last weekend. The signing represents a major step toward final accord in the suit that has divided the town for nine years. “I hope, now, we can all get together and prosper together,” said Luther Madison, tribal council medicine man and former Gay Head selectman. His comments came at an emotional special town meeting in a packed town hall. Mr. Madison’s remarks drew applause. Townspeople, summer and year-round, Indian and non-Indian, gathered in the town hall to vote on the settlement. Ninety-two voted for the settlement that will grant 440 acres to the tribal council, and 13 voted against it.

A festive mood spread through the town. The vote and the signing of the documents clearly represented an historic moment in Gay Head’s history. Hannah Malkin, president of the taxpayers’ association, and Jeffrey Madison, a Gay head selectman and member of the tribal council, shook hands warmly. In recent years these two town figures have been in fierce disagreement on nearly every political issue. There were settlement victory parties in a town known primarily for its sunsets, fishing, colorful cliffs and political disputes.

One group, a branch of the Vanderhoop family, representing virtually all the votes against the settlement, left the meeting angry. “What do I have to gain as a Gay Head Indian from this settlement?” Thelma Vanderhoop Weissberg asked in loud and strident tones. “Other races will call it genocide and other fancy names,” said Beatrice Vanderhoop Gentry, referring to the settlement. It was that group that founded the tribal council, hired Indian rights lawyer Thomas N. Tureen and filed the land claim suit in 1974. Since then they have lost control of, and this month resigned from, the tribal council. Finding the tribal council leadership too moderate, they hired their own lawyer and filed their own lawsuit, which claims the entire town.

But the dominant theme to the Saturday night meeting was that an out-of-court settlement is in the best interests of the town. Before the vote, Mr. Madison rose to endorse the settlement. “We feel it will lift a burden the town has been laboring under for ten years. Now is the time to come together. . . .”

Most people would see nothing ceremonial in the raking of autumn leaves, but the casual view of most people is not a final answer. The ceremony comes with the season as most of the rites of antiquity, a seasonal chore that helps one see one phase of the passing year through to the next. The man with the rake in his front or back yard follows a pattern set long ago. If he did not rake any leaves at all, nature would take care of them. They would go kiting off into the winds, or nestle against shrubs that need mulching, or pile in heaps which, compacting and subsiding, would end in an accumulation of humus.

The man with the rake stands back, leans on the rake handle and observes how many leaves have already blown back again and how many are airborne and heading his way. A ceremonial often concludes just so. It isn’t what is left over that counts, but what was done, and how. The chore is over, the wind rises, leaves hustle and rustle around the yard. The man has followed the old and great urging of an ancestral instinct.

Not many folks can recall the exact date they started work at a particular job, but Violet Rego remembers that on Sept. 15, 1945 she went to work for the New Haven and Hartford Railway, selling train and ferry tickets at the steamer wharf in Oak Bluffs. The boat line became the Massachusetts Steamship Lines, then the publicly-controlled New Bedford, Woods Hole, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket Steamship Authority and finally, dropping New Bedford, the Steamship Authority.

Captains, agents and politicians came and went, vessels were bought and sold and even the ports changed over the years. But Mrs. Rego’s bright smile, patient manner and loyalty to the boat line were constant. Customers, especially summer people, were amazed at her ability to remember names and faces. Mrs. Rego admits that folks today don’t seem to take as much pleasure in traveling as they did in the golden years of steamboating, when a traveler could spend a few extra dollars for a stateroom on the long voyage from New Bedford. “Today they just want to get there,” she said.

She grew up riding the boats. Stricken with polio at the age of seven, Mrs. Rego traveled regularly to Boston Children’s Hospital for treatments. But there was romance to be found at the Oak Bluffs wharf. While selling tickets at the terminal, she met a handsome young businessman from Fall River named James Rego. He would come down to the wharf to fish and the two chatted through the screen door of the office. She jokingly chided him when he returned from the end of the pier without a catch. They were married in April, 1954.

Compiled by Cynthia Meisner