September 14, 1981 12:00 PM

The Massachusetts island of Martha’s Vineyard is a playground of the genteel rich and famous, where the likes of Walter Cronkite, Katharine Hepburn and John Belushi summer. But the Vineyard is also the ancient home of the Wampanoag Indians—and one of America’s oldest struggles is being rehearsed there—the battle between Native Americans and whites over who owns the land. In a Boston federal court this fall, trial will begin on a claim by the Wampanoags that they own 200 publicly held acres of the Vineyard town of Gay Head, including the town’s striking public beaches and some land that abuts the 356-acre plot belonging to the Vineyard’s most famous resident, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. The disputed acreage also includes portions of Herring Creek, which runs through Jackie’s land—though rights on private property are not claimed.

As the Indians see it, they are not threatening landowners like Jackie—who has just moved into her $3 million cottage in Gay Head—but asserting an ancient right. “When the Pilgrims came, they found us here,” says Gladys Widdiss, 67, president of the Wampanoag Tribal Council. Massasoit, a Wampanoag chief, helped the Pilgrims through the harsh New World winter, and other Wampanoags taught the settlers whaling. (Widdiss’ uncle was mentioned in Moby Dick as an expert harpooner.) “Sharing has always been part of being a Wampanoag,” Widdiss says, “sharing knowledge and sharing land.” But land in Gay Head sells for around $12,000 an acre—and sharing is forgotten. Only 100 Wampanoags live in Gay Head now. “People like Jackie and Belushi come in and spend a million dollars and jack up the land values—and the taxes,” Widdiss complains. “They’re making it impossible to keep our homes.”

The suit is being fought by the local taxpayers’ association, to which Jackie belongs. They fear that if the Indians win, they will soon try to reclaim private property, too. “These homeowners have been here for a long time,” says their lawyer, Lawrence Mirel, “and this suit could leave them high and dry.” Gay Head homeowners have voted not to allow the town selectmen—all Indians—to represent them in court. Instead, they have retained Mirel and won the support of the Massachusetts Attorney General.

To win, the Wampanoags must prove a “tribal identity”—no easy job, since some of them live off-island (mostly in eastern Massachusetts) and much of their history lacks written documentation. One homeowner calls them “alleged Indians.” Widdiss counters: “They see us as assimilated, and on the surface we are. But we have our history.” Even so, both sides seem eager to avoid a day in court: 270 Wampanoags on-and off-island will vote this month on a proposal to drop the suit in exchange for 175 acres of privately owned land suitable for development.

Whatever the outcome, the battle has left its scars on Gay Head. But the friction is, typically, restrained. “There haven’t been overt cases of hostility,” selectman Jeff Madison says. “But if someone from the tribal council saw someone from the taxpayers’ association broken down with a flat tire, chances are they’d drive on by, and vice versa.” Although her own land could be affected, Jackie O has—at least publicly—ignored the contretemps. “She hasn’t said anything about the suit,” says Mirel, “I guess she doesn’t feel threatened.”

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