In the interview series Meet Native America, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian invites tribal leaders, cultural figures, and other interesting and accomplished Native individuals to introduce themselves and say a little about their lives and work. Together, their responses illustrate the diversity of the indigenous communities of the Western Hemisphere, as well as their shared concerns, and offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of the Native peoples today.
Please introduce yourself with your name and title.
Councilman Jonathan Perry.
Your Native name, its English translation and/or nickname?
My traditional name means “Laughing One.”
What responsibilities do you have as a tribal/band/ Native community leader?
As a tribal councilman, I am responsible for working with our tribal chairperson, fellow council members, and traditional leaders to create a balanced, honest, and traditionally rooted government that promotes sovereignty, strength, and unity for all our tribal citizens and our future generations. As a representative of our tribal nation, and the northeastern Native community, I work hard to ensure that our eastern people are well respected, understood, and acknowledged in our homelands and abroad.
How did your life experience prepare you to lead your tribe/band/Native community?
I spent a lot of time in my community and other Native communities, participating in gatherings, celebrations, and ceremonies. It gave me the opportunity to learn from elders and knowledge keepers. It instilled in me a great appreciation for our societies, and therefore encouraged me to gain an understanding and work towards strengthening our tribal nation. I have extensively studied our traditional government structure and leadership roles, and try to impart that quality into my own leadership position.
Who inspired you as a mentor?
I have been inspired by many people who have represented our Wampanoag Nation and eastern Native people in a strong, positive light. Some of those people have crossed over, and it is now our responsibility to be the inspirations and the mentors. I never had just one mentor, I had a community of them. The ones who immediately come to mind are the late Chief Donald Malonson, from the Aquinnah Wampanoag Nation; the late Tony Pollard, widely known as Nanepashemet, an author, artist, historian and relative; and the late Alice Lopez, from the Mashpee Wampanoag Nation, a greatly respected woman who valued community strength and traditions. The list goes on.
Are you a descendant of a historical leader? If so, who?
I am descended from numerous respected tribal leaders. Perhaps one of the best known would be Mittark.
Where is your tribe/band/Native community located?
The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) is currently located on the island of Noepe (Martha’s Vineyard) off of the south coast of Massachusetts in the Atlantic Ocean.
Where was your tribe/band/Native community originally from?
Although our tribal lands are located within the town of Aquinnah today, our traditional territory covered Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, and the Elizabeth Islands; the region of Cape Cod; the South Shore of Massachusetts; the East Bay of Rhode Island, including Aquidneck Island; and following the Blackstone River Valley to the North River in Massachusetts.
Is there a functional, traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system?
Yes. We have a traditional sôtyum (chief) whose position is decided by the former sôtyum, supported by the community, and confirmed by the elder women. Our medicine person is chosen by the former medicine person and is supported and confirmed in the same fashion as the sôtyum.
What is a significant point in history from your tribe/band/Native community that you would like to share?
In our history, there have been many significant events. These span from pre-Contact to current events. In my opinion, the most important event was when the glaciers receded and our people were led to the place where we reside now by our great leader, Moshup; this is evidenced in our oral traditions.
A well-known event was King Phillip’s War (1675–78), the largest war—in the percentage of people directly affected—fought on American soil in history. This war demonstrated our efforts to enforce our right to self-determination of our borders, our government, and our own people.
Federal recognition, granted in 1987, and the achievement of self-governance were also highlights for our nation. In between these events, our people participated in the whaling and mercantile industries, as well as each military campaign that helped to shape America’s economy and standing from the global perspective.
To read the full interview with Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head Councilman Jonathan Perry visit the NMAI series here.