Nantucket Celebrates Indigenous Peoples’ Day
Kimal McCarthy, Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Director
Janet Schulte, Ph.D., Department of Culture & Tourism Director
Communities across the United States, including Nantucket Island, are proactively working towards acknowledging past and present-day injustices enacted upon Black, Indigenous, and people-of-color (BIPOC) and are making amends to establish a more equitable and inclusive society.
On Nantucket, town government and community members are taking actions to spotlight the lesser known diverse heritage of the island. At the 2021 Annual Town Meeting, members of the community voted in favor of a citizen warrant article to “adopt Indigenous Peoples’ Day locally in place of Columbus Day holiday.” It is important to note that this article was “a non-binding directive.” Nantucket voters’ approval of this warrant article is not surprising as there are signs of the island’s Wampanoag heritage throughout the community today. For example, areas of the island still have their Wampanoag names.
The Other Islanders by Dr. Frances Karttunen, linguist and local island historian, states, “Their language, changed in pronunciation but still recognizable as theirs, is in our mouths a dozen times a day in familiar island names, many ending in t: ‘Sconset, Madaket, Quidnet, Wannacomet, Miacomet. More of them used to have the t: Coatue was once Coatuet and Capaum was Capamet. Eighty-six place names can be found in Nantucket deeds and wills, and a third of these remain in everyday use…” (p.17).
The historical tales and contributions of Nantucket’s Wampanoag people are affiliated with the many economic and social issues of their time. For example, it is hardly addressed that Nantucket’s famous Black Whaling Captain Absalom Boston was also half-Wampanoag, his mother, Thankful Micah, was one of many Wampanoags that married Africans/African Americans brought to Nantucket. “Thankful Micah married Seneca Boston, whose parents were both Africans. According to her brother-in-law, many of the other survivors [of the ‘Indian sickness’] also found spouses in the African community” (Karttunen, 2005, p.54). Nantucket Wampanoags contributed to the island’s maritime history, abolishment of slavery, equal education for children, and more. As illustrated, their most recognizable contributions are the names we use to identify sections of Nantucket Island. One can also see reminders of the Wampanoag’s presence in a burial ground marker near Miacomet Road and Surfside Road and the Nantucket Atheneum has a portrait of Abram Quary, considered to be Nantucket’s last Native American man.
Frankly, it is difficult to summarize Nantucket’s Wampanoag history and contributions to the island. Alongside Dr. Karttunen’s books, information on the island’s indigenous people are available in Away Off Shore and Abram’s Eyes by Nathaniel Philbrick and in A Line in the Sand by Barbara Ann White, to name a few. There are organizations on island that are committed to sharing the stories of Nantucket’s indigenous people such as the Nantucket Historical Association and the Museum of African American History. And, there are also vibrant and proactive Wampanoag communities presently on Martha’s Vineyard and throughout Cape Cod and the South Shore.
Nantucket Island has a complex history and it takes personal interest and effort to learn about the less known and diverse aspects of the island’s past. Indigenous Peoples’ Day is an opportunity to recognize Nantucket’s Wampanoags and their contributions to the island’s way-of-life back then and presently. The adoption of the non-binding citizen warrant article by Nantucket’s voters is an example of islanders’ willingness to strive for an equitable and inclusive community.