Aquinnah Area Information
Aquinnah (formerly known as Gay Head) – At the far western end of the Island
Dramatic colorful cliffs of clay at Aquinnah formerly known as Gay Head ( population of around 350 people) draw thousands to this location. There are also gift shops owned and run by native Wampanoags and a restaurant with one of the most spectacular views on the Island!
The cliffs are open for public viewing, from a high point near the Gay Head Lighthouse http://www.lighthouse.cc/gayhead/history.html). The lighthouse at Gay Head cliffs was opened in 1799 and help the heavy maritime traffic passing through the Vineyard Sound to do so safely. From this vantage point view of the cliffs and the lighthouse is breathtaking. There is water on three sides, and Noman's Land can be seen to the south and the Elizabeth Islands (both part of Dukes County, but mostly unoccupied) are on the opposite horizon. Equally impressive, though, is to follow a boardwalk down to the ocean, where there is a public swimming beach and a view of the cliffs from below.
The cliffs looked sculpted in red, yellow, white and gray clay, with occasional striations of black. Until recent years, visitors could climb on them. Now, the cliffs are protected as a historical site; climbing or prying out any of the precious clay – which is slowly being eroded by the wind and water – is forbidden. The cliffs and the beach below, as well as the hills and land around Gay Head, are the property of the Wampanoag Tribe, the largest collection of Native Americans in Massachusetts. There are more than 900 members listed on tribal rolls; 300 of those live on Martha's Vineyard, and about 150 in Aquinnah. Those who live here are thought by some to be related to the mainland Wampanoag tribe, but the natives themselves have a mythical story that describes their arrival on Martha's Vineyard floating on an ice flow from the far North. They have tribal headquarters on an Aquinnah hilltop, and recently acquired an historical Wampanoag family homestead for use as a cultural center.
After the English settlement at Great Harbor (Edgartown) in 1642, Thomas Mayhew Sr. named himself governor of the Island, and his son, Thomas Jr., became a missionary to the Wampanoags, converting them to Christianity. Diseases wiped out large numbers of the population, but native communities survived at Aquinnah, Christiantown and Chappaquiddick, with Aquinnah the most populous and organized.
In 1987 the Wampanoag tribal council was recognized by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs as an official tribal government. It functions today as a popularly elected representative government, working on economic and community development. The Wampanoag trust lands encompass 485 acres – 160 acres privately held and 325 acres common lands; the commonly-held real estate includes the Gay Head cliffs, Herring Creek and Lobsterville.
The Gay Head Lighthouse:
It is overseen by the Martha's Vineyard Museum and is open from the summer solstice to the fall equinox on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings from one r before sunset to a half hour after sunset.
The Aquinnah Beaches:
Lobsterville Beach along the Vineyard Sound side of town, Philbin Beach (residents and rental guests with leases only) and Moshup Beach to the southwest. In the 60's and 70's, this beach was a haven for nude sunbathers who delighted in "clay baths", and today no one is allowed to do that anymore. It is not officially a "nude beach", but the area just before and just after the first point has always been "clothing optional". It is also a family beach. A uniformed beach patrol agent comes by often in a ATV, and if caught with clay on your person, or engaging in any other illegal activities, you may be fined $100. Alcohol will be confiscated. Parking can be expensive, but it is well worth it! Recommended is the use of the Martha's Vineyard Transit System with buses that serve Aquinnah and connect it to the Island's other towns.
They include Cranberry Day, held by the Wampanoags to celebrate the local harvest in October, a car rally, and various occasions at the new Wampanoag Cultural Center.
The traditional beliefs of the Aquinnah Wampanoag say the giant Moshup created Noepe, their word for Martha’s Vineyard. It translates as "amid the waters," a reference to the two distinct tidal currents offshore. Moshup, the beliefs say, taught his people how to fish and to catch whales.