festivals and traditions

The People of Dawn

“Avoid giving troubles to your fellow but,

instead, bring them joy whenever you can!”


Yes,  American Native tribes said this and they actually behaved very kindly with every host that arrived in their lands. Just think of what they did to help the English Puritans that, during the seventeenth century, landed on the American coasts to escape religious persecutions.

Let’s step back in time. When these English people, still known as Pilgrims, arrived in this new and unknown place, it was very difficult for them to survive, so they were helped by some local tribes that taught them how to work the land and which plants to grow, to cook and also how to extract some juice from maple trees.

The most important among the Native populations who lived in that area were the Wampanoag, also known as Pakanoket. Their name derives from the words “wampa”, which means “dawn” and “noag”, that means “population”; so they were the People of Dawn, because they lived on the East coast of New England and they were the first to see the sunrise.

They spoke a dialect that belonged to the Algonquian languages family and they were led by Massasoit, the most important “sachem”, i.e. the head of all Wampanoag. In fact they were a confederation of tribes, each ruled by a sachem and all these leaders had to consult each other to organize the trading as well as the protection of their allies in return for some goods. Both men and women could have this role, so there was equality between sexes in their society.

Wampanoag were semi-sedentary, so they seasonally moved to the different fixed sites they had in the present-day Massachusetts and Rhode Island. For this reason they lived in wigwams called “wetu”, made up of stakes covered with birch bark, that could be dismantled and transported in another place quite quickly.


Wampanoag’s diet was based on the “Three Sisters”: corn, beans and squash, with fish and game, too. In fact they worked the land from which they got everything they needed to survive. These fields were worked by women, who gathered the food, too, while men were in charge of hunting and fishing.

Marriages were attested by parents and public approval and could be dissolved quite easily. In fact they weren’t as important as family and clan relations. So, although monogamy was the norm, polygamy was frequent, because having more than one wife was a symbol of wealth, as women produced food.

Wampanoag still live on the reservation on Martha’s Vineyard, in Dukes County, located in the town of Aquinnah (Gay Head). There are currently five organized groups of the Wampanoag: Assonet, Gay Head, Herring Pond, Mashpee and Namasket. All have applied for recognition by the government, but only the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head of Massachusetts still has a reservation on Martha’s Vineyard.


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