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On Martha's Vineyard, tribal elders work to restore land to its pre-colonial state

David Vanderhoop, 67, at Sassafras Earth Education, an indigenous Wampanoag nonprofit that he runs with his wife on Martha's Vineyard, Mass.
Sophie Park for NPR
David Vanderhoop, 67, at Sassafras Earth Education, an indigenous Wampanoag nonprofit that he runs with his wife on Martha's Vineyard, Mass.

AQUINNAH, Mass. — Off the coast of Massachusetts, the island of Martha's Vineyard is bustling with summer tourists packed into beaches, yacht clubs, and restaurants. A tour around the 96-square-mile island would almost certainly include scenes of tall lighthouses, sprawling estates with manicured laws, and colorful cottages that can be rented for upwards of $330 a night.

But that's not the island life David Vanderhoop lives or wants.

Striding through wet grass on his 20-acre property, the Aquinnah Wampanoag elder points to remnants of the native plant species that his ancestors relied on for thousands of years.

"Right below our feet here, all of these little white flowers with yellow in them – these are all wild strawberries," he said. "The strawberries are much smaller ... than the cultivated species. But they are so very tasty. Oh, my goodness, yes."

A Native Land Conservancy sign is located at the entrance of Sassafras Earth Education.
/ Sophie Park for NPR
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Sophie Park for NPR
A Native Land Conservancy sign is located at the entrance of Sassafras Earth Education.
Kevin Devine, Saskia Vanderhoop, David Vanderhoop, and Audrey Van Der Krogt, participate in a group exercise during an employee training at Sassafras Earth Education, an indigenous Wampanoag nonprofit run by the Vanderhoops.
/ Sophie Park for NPR
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Sophie Park for NPR
Kevin Devine, Saskia Vanderhoop, David Vanderhoop, and Audrey Van Der Krogt participate in a group exercise during employee training at Sassafras Earth Education, an indigenous Wampanoag nonprofit run by the Vanderhoops.
Kevin Devine, 50, lists fire safety best practices during an employee training at Sassafras Earth Education.
/ Sophie Park for NPR
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Sophie Park for NPR
Kevin Devine, 50, lists fire safety best practices during employee training at Sassafras Earth Education.

Vanderhoop, 67, cherishes stories of days long past when the island's natural cranberry bogs, blueberry bushes, and Sassafras trees were cared for by Aquinnah Wampanoag men, women, and children all over the island.

"We were a beneficial part of this ecosystem," he explained.

A historian for the tribe estimates there were around 4,000 Aquinnah Wampanoag people at the tribe's peak, though others estimate there were thousands more. But over the last 400 years, since colonists first arrived, the on-island Aquinnah Wampanoag population has shrunk to about 500, and only a fraction of them know ancestral practices.

In Vanderhoop's case, development over the years forced his forefathers to take jobs away from their property. The result: their land is completely overgrown and has been overtaken by invasive species.

But prompted by the threats of climate change and a desire to educate the next generation, Vanderhoop and his wife, Saskia, are determined to restore their land to what it was centuries ago. Drawing from oral history and a variety of research methods, they're replanting, reharvesting, and re-establishing a productive food forest, full of original sounds, smells, textures, tastes, and sights. They're calling it the Land Culture Project.

"I just have it in my system that I have to bring the land back to a productive time," David Vanderhoop said. "So we're setting up the land the way that my ancestors would have."

A blackberry bush and Saskia Vanderhoop at Sassafras Earth Education.
/ Sophie Park for NPR
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Sophie Park for NPR
A blackberry bush and Saskia Vanderhoop at Sassafras Earth Education.

The Vanderhoops see the consequences of a European agriculture system and a tourism economy all over Martha's Vineyard. Saskia Vanderhoop says people have clear-cut the forests, established plant monocultures, and over-used chemical fertilizers.

"Not only do you take the nutrient-dense, wild foods away from the people, you change their complete culture," she said, "because food and the land are the two major, essential components of the culture."

This kind of work, to the Vanderhoops, is best accomplished collectively. The couple is teaching traditional land restoration practices to children who come for summer camp each July.

"Sadly, there are a lot of factors, institutions, that keep Wampanoag people from this land, from stewarding the land," said one camp counselor, Tysonnae Aiguier-Bolling, 26, an Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe member and David's niece. "So the fact that they're able to do that and teach more people – they're not only doing it for themselves – I think it's amazing."

The Vanderhoops have seen some progress already. They've removed invasive species like wild roses, wisteria, and Russian olive trees, and planted hickory trees, American chestnuts, black walnuts, mulberries, wild blueberries, and fruits called "pawpaws."

Audrey Van Der Krogt, helps Vernon Powell, look for foliage to start a fire.
/ Sophie Park for NPR
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Sophie Park for NPR
Audrey Van Der Krogt helps Vernon Powell look for foliage to start a fire.
Audrey Van Der Krogt, rakes sand by a fire pit to prepare for an employee fire-making training at Sassafras Earth Education.
/ Sophie Park for NPR
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Sophie Park for NPR
Audrey Van Der Krogt rakes sand by a fire pit to prepare for an employee fire-making training session at Sassafras Earth Education.
David Vanderhoop, and Saskia Vanderhoop, during an employee training at Sassafras Earth Education.
/ Sophie Park for NPR
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Sophie Park for NPR
David Vanderhoop and Saskia Vanderhoop during employee training at Sassafras Earth Education.

"They don't last for very long, but they taste like sweet pudding," David Vanderhoop said.

As they approach their 70s, the Vanderhoops say they know they may never see their dream fully realized, but that's a terrible reason to not try. When David Vanderhoop walks around his property and thinks of what it will look and sound like 20 years from now, he closes his eyes and lets his thoughts roam.

"Oh, my goodness. [We'll] hear the cardinals and the blue jays and the chickadees and the song sparrows and so on and so forth," he began. "You'll hear children harvesting and the people here talking about the different plants and how to use them and how it benefits us as humans to keep this in your heart."

"I'm not doing this for myself. I'm doing this for the next generations."

David Vanderhoop, hugs Tysonnae Aiguier-Bolling, before an employee training at Sassafras Earth Education.
/ Sophie Park for NPR
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Sophie Park for NPR
David Vanderhoop hugs Tysonnae Aiguier-Bolling before an employee training session at Sassafras Earth Education.

Copyright 2022 WCAI

Eve Zuckoff
Eve Zuckoff is WCAI's Report for America reporter, covering the human impacts of climate change.