At three years old, after spending half her life dealing with pain and declining health from a fishing line tangled around her tale, a juvenile right whale died and washed ashore in Edgartown last week.

The carcass now rests in Aquinnah where, following a ceremony led by Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) medicine man Jason Baird and an extensive investigation by a team of experts, the whale’s remains were lowered into her final resting place on tribal land.

All but her skeleton was buried there, for soon after the whale washed ashore, Aquinnah Chief F. Ryan Malonson claimed it for use by members of the Aquinnah tribe.

Tribal leadership maintains it has aboriginal rights to any dead whales that beach along the shores of Noepe — the Wampanoag name for Martha’s Vineyard. Though the tribe doesn’t always take ownership of the marine mammals, retaining the right has remained a priority for members, who have traditionally made use of whale meat, fat, bones and baleen.

“It’s part of his ancient and aboriginal right as the traditional leader to provide for the citizens of our community,” Mr. Baird said, in an interview with the Gazette. “He claimed the whale in order that we could have a ceremony for the whale, but also so that the tribal citizens could partake in any resources that are available.”

And though this is far from the first time the tribe has claimed a drift whale, the recent high-profile case serves as a vindication of long-held rights never ceded by the tribe.

“We never gave up our rights. We never, essentially, stopped that connection to the sea, and the connection to those marine mammals,” said Wampanoag artist and Aquinnah tribal council member Jonathan Perry.

“This isn’t the first whale that we’ve claimed, but I think it’s definitely nice to see that there’s a shift in the societal view . . . to recognize that it is actually a positive thing that we’re enforcing those rights, and that we’re using it to advance the traditional ecological knowledge of our children,” he said.

The connection between whales and the Wampanoag stretches deep into the past. They figure prominently in the story of Maushop (also spelled Moshup), a giant who, in oral history, welcomed the Wampanoag when they first arrived in Aquinnah.

“When Wampanoag people came to live there, Maushop provided a place for them,” Mr. Baird said. “In so doing, he shared his whales that he would go out and catch and hunt with the people, thereby providing them with nourishment and sustenance.”

“That was his favorite food,” Mr. Perry said, recounting another story where Maushop’s children were transformed into whales. “He would gift our people with whales and, you know, still essentially does in a way.”

Watching the coast for recently-stranded or injured whales to harvest for food and material was a common practice, Mr. Perry said, and tribe members would also hunt them in muhsh8n (pronounced mishoon) dugout canoes.

Later, after European colonization, many Native techniques were used in the burgeoning whale oil industry, he said, even if Wampanoags themselves were often marginalized in the trade. 

“You can really attribute a lot of the offshore whaling to us, for good and for bad,” he said. While seamen of native ancestry, such as Mr. Perry’s ancestor Joseph Belain, sometimes rose to the level of captain, most were relegated to lower paid positions while performing outsized duties on board. 

Through the years, Mr. Perry said, Wampanoag people have closely guarded their right to beached whales. 

“There were definitely a lot of challenges, and a lot of our folks had to go spend time at court and fight for the continuance of their rights,” he said.

More recently, said Aquinnah tribal council chair Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, those rights have sometimes been difficult to assert. 

“It’s a matter of respect and also upholding the rights of us as Indigenous people in how we treat the passing of relatives, especially something that’s so significant as whales,” Ms. Andrews-Maltais said, in an interview with the Gazette this summer.  

In the 1990s, the tribe claimed other drift whales that came ashore. In 1999, for instance, the Gazette reported that then-chief Donald Malonson claimed rights to the bones of a humpback that washed up on Squibnocket Beach. 

“It was a smaller community back then, way smaller,” Ms. Andrew-Maltais said.

Ms. Andrews-Maltais noted that the tribe held ceremonies for other recent drift whales on Chappaquiddick. But in the case of others that washed up on private beaches, she said the tribe had not always been consulted about the remains.

“It was more or less like an oversight as opposed to deliberately being ignorant,” she said. “The agencies themselves have evolved and gotten more sophisticated, more regulations, more complications. I think that had a lot to do with it.”

In 2022, the tribe signed an agreement with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to join the Greater Atlantic Regional Marine Mammal Stranding Network, working to save stranded dolphins and seals on-Island. 

It was through that network, said tribal indirect resources administrator Bret Stearns, that he first got word of the right whale that washed ashore in Edgartown. 

“The team knew that they were going to be engaged in a necropsy and the significance of the right whale to the tribe was important,” he said. “And so I offered a location for it to be returned back to tribal lands, and then we moved forward from there.”

The priorities of the tribe aligned with those of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the organization coordinating the response last week, since the equipment necessary for a necropsy would not have been able to fit on the small Edgartown beach where it had washed up.

But transporting the 20,000-pound carcass was no small feat, requiring the whale to be towed back out to sea, transported to Vineyard Haven harbor and loaded onto a flatbed truck to be driven to Aquinnah.

“It’s an Island network that really made it happen, and we’re just so appreciative,” Mr. Stearns said. “The tribal community was just very honored, I think, to be able to receive the animal home, and I felt very lucky to be a part of that.” 

The ability to receive the whale on tribal grounds had a big impact for many tribal members, Mr. Baird said. 

“There were some of our community members that it seemed to be quite intense for them, for very different reasons,” he said. “There’s still connections that can be made, and people can still have their minds in it, and their hands on it, and their hearts are involved in things that are relevant to their culture.”

Now, Mr. Stearns said, work has begun to preserve the skeleton. The bones have been added to a mixture of compost material, allowing organisms in the soil to eat the flesh and oil remaining on them.

The process of cleaning and drying the skeleton will not be complete until after this summer. No final determination has been made about the use of the skeleton, but Mr. Baird and Mr. Perry said it could be an opportunity for tribal members to participate in traditional whalebone carving, making use of a material seldom available now.

“Traditionally, bone was a really important material that was used in a number of ways,” Mr. Perry said. “It was, for us Aquinnah peoples, very common, for instance, for us to use the large vertebrae of whales as tool benches for chopping wood and shaping material.”

Jewelry, frames, combs, knitting needles and even eating utensils used to be made from whalebone, he said. 

Creating a piece of art from the final remains of the whale, Mr. Perry said, could be a way to honor it after her death. 

“Here’s this tragic life loss of a species of whale that can’t afford to lose a single individual,” he said. “But if I, or one of my relatives from the community, produce a beautiful piece of artwork, that could potentially live on for hundreds or even thousands of years.”

Emily Gajda contributed to this story.