“Strap on your seatbelts — I’m going to bring you for a ride,” Wampanoag historian Darius Coombs told a roomful of Islanders at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum Saturday morning, as he began a presentation called The Wampanoag and Noepe as One.

“As a people, we’ve been here for over 12,000 years,” said Mr. Coombs, the cultural outreach coordinator for the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe and former director of the Wampanoag Indigenous Program at Plimoth Patuxet Museums (previously known as Plimoth Plantation).

He described a culture that had grown to about 70 communities in Massachusetts by the early 17th century, when English settlers arrived.

“We know the 70 chiefs’ names today,” Mr. Coombs said.

The Vineyard’s Wampanoag communities were Aquinnah, Chappaquiddick, Nunnepog and Takemmy, he told the group. The Island was known as Noepe, for Middle of the Water, he said.

Mr. Coombs illustrated his hour-long talk with slides of historic images, maps and color photographs of present-day Wampanoags — including himself and members of his family — in traditional dress, taking part in time-honored activities such as fishing, hunting and annual pow wows.

Early Mashpee and Noepe Wampanoags visited one another by dugout canoe, a journey Mr. Coombs and nine fellow tribal members made in 2002 for the first time in centuries. Wampanoags historically fished by full moon and torchlight, catching sturgeon so large they would not fit in the canoe and had to be towed, and using lobster for bait, he said.

Mr. Coombs refers to the arrival of English settlers as “the interruption.” But the tribe’s traditional way of life began to end even before the colonists arrived in the 1620s, he told the museum audience. Early Europeans in America were more than traders and explorers, he said: “You have to add on ‘and slavers.’”

Mr. Coombs with Norah Messier. — Louisa Hufstader

From Maine on south, coastal slave-takers preyed on native people, shipping them back to England to be shown as curiosities — alive or, as mentioned by Shakespeare in the Tempest, dead — or selling them into servitude in other colonies.

“This is not something I’m making up. This was normal for them. This is what they did,” Mr. Coombs said.

But the English found their Wampanoag captives generally failed to thrive.

“For the most part … we died,” Mr. Coombs said.

One exception was a Noepe sachem named Epenow, who was kidnapped in 1611 and taken to England, where he learned his captors’ language well enough to convince them he could translate for them in Massachusetts. Instead, as the English ship sailed back to the Vineyard in 1614, Epenow called for help and escaped overboard as Wampanoag archers attacked the captor vessel, Mr. Coombs said.

Other slaves survived in the colony of Bermuda, where descendants maintain their Wampanoag heritage to this day and an annual pow wow was established in 2000.

“Just imagine, all those centuries … and still having your culture,” Mr. Coombs said.

Bermuda and Massachusetts Wampanoags now visit each others’ pow wows every other year, he said.

Slavers, traders and explorers also brought new diseases to American tribes, Mr. Coombs said, including a widespread plague — possibly the bacterial disease leptospirosis, originating in shipboard rats — that devastated the Wampanoag.

“It’s possible 9 out of 10 of our people died,” he said. The depopulation was a boon for the Pilgrims, who arrived to discover land that was sparsely inhabited or wide open, he added.

The surviving Wampanoags weren’t sure what to expect when families arrived and settled nearby, Mr. Coombs said.

“We were used to people coming back and forth. We’re not used to people staying,” he said.

While the Plimoth tribe and Pilgrims made a pact of mutual assistance, their heralded Thanksgiving celebration — long told as a story of cross-cultural cooperation — was more likely a mix-up in communication, Mr. Coombs said.

As English colonists gained foothold after foothold in the new world, native people were forcibly converted to Christianity, he said.

“A lot of times if you didn’t take on Christianity, you were killed,” he said, noting that converted Wampanoags often formed “praying towns” like the one at Christiantown in West Tisbury, which existed through the 19th century.

But the Wampanoag were spared one of the worst scourges of European-American society on the continent’s first peoples: the Indian Removal Act signed by President Andrew Jackson in 1830.

“They were ready to take a lot of us,” Mr. Coombs said. Then a non-native overseer spoke up for his native work force, telling federal authorities the Wampanoag couldn’t survive without their seafood diet. Allowed to remain, the Wampanoags nonetheless continued to lose territory as towns incorporated around them, Mr. Coombs said.

“Being a township, guess what, you have to pay taxes,” he said. “That is how a lot of us Wampanoag people lost a lot of land.”

Mr. Coombs ended his talk on a brighter note, discussing the revival of the tribe’s native tongue over the past couple of decades.

“We have our language back,” said Mr. Coombs, whose wife teaches Wôpanâak to other tribal members.

Ironically, he added, it was a 17th-century King James Bible in Wampanoag, created by Christianizing colonists, that made it possible for tribal members to recreate the language they had lost in intervening centuries.

But other elements of Wampanoag culture are gone forever, Mr. Coombs said.

“Our ceremonies, and our songs … a lot of the originals don’t exist any more,” he told the audience.

But other tribes have shared their chants and songs, and Wampanoag musicians are creating new ones, he said.

During a 15-minute question and answer period following his talk, Mr. Coombs was asked what he knows about intercultural relationships on the Vineyard since settlers first arrived.

“I’ve heard Aquinnah people speak, especially about religion, and they say ‘Christianity was good for us,’” he said. “From what I heard, relationships weren’t too bad around here, but I don’t know in full detail.”

About 30 people turned out for Mr. Coombs’s appearance, with about the same number joining by Zoom, museum education manager Norah Messier told the Gazette afterward.