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An Aquinnah Wampanoag elder is restoring some land to what it was before colonists


Just off the coast of Massachusetts, the island of Martha's Vineyard is bustling with tourists packed onto beaches, into yacht clubs and restaurants. It's a different scene from when Native Americans nurtured the land. Eve Zuckoff of member station WCAI introduces us to a tribal elder who's restoring a small plot to what it was long before colonists arrived 400 years ago.

EVE ZUCKOFF, BYLINE: A tour around the 96-square-mile island would bring you past tall lighthouses, sprawling estates with manicured lawns and colorful cottages that can be rented for $330 a night. But that's not the island life David Vanderhoop lives. 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.

DAVID VANDERHOOP: And right below our feet here, all of these little white flowers with yellow in them - these are all wild strawberries. And the strawberries are much smaller than the cultivated specie, but they are so very tasty.

ZUCKOFF: Vanderhoop cherishes stories of days long past when the island's natural cranberry bogs, blueberry bushes and sassafras trees were cared for by more than 4,000 Aquinnah Wampanoag people.

D VANDERHOOP: And we shared in that. We were a beneficial part of this ecosystem.

ZUCKOFF: Over the last few centuries, the Aquinnah Wampanoag population on island has shrunk to about 500, and Vanderhoop's family was forced to take jobs away from their property. Their land was overtaken by invasive species. But prompted by the threats of climate change, Vanderhoop and his wife, Saskia, are drawing from family stories to restore their land to what it once was - a productive food forest full of the original sounds, smells, textures, tastes and sights. They're calling it the Land Culture Project.

D VANDERHOOP: So we're setting up the land the way that my ancestors would have.

ZUCKOFF: Twenty years from now, can you give me, like, a sensory tour? Like, what will this land smell like? What will it sound like?

D VANDERHOOP: You'll hear children harvesting and the people here talking about the different plants and how to use them. I'm not doing this for myself. I'm doing this for the next generations.

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

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

ZUCKOFF: Now the Vanderhoops are teaching traditional land restoration practices to kids who come for summer camp each July. One counselor is Aquinnah tribe member Tysonnae Aiguier-Bolling.

TYSONNAE AIGUIER-BOLLING: Sadly, there are a lot of factors, institutions that keep Wampanoag people from this land, from stewarding the land. So the fact that they're able to do that and teach more people also - they're not only doing it for themselves - I think it's amazing.

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

D VANDERHOOP: You know, they don't last for very long, but they taste like sweet pudding.

ZUCKOFF: David and Saskia are both in their 60s and say they may never see their dream fully realized. But that's a terrible reason not to try.

D VANDERHOOP: I just have it in my system that I have to bring the land back to a productive time.

ZUCKOFF: In just the last few years, the Vanderhoops have been able to empower and educate dozens of Native youth on how to plant, harvest and reclaim their ancestral lands. And that feels a lot like success already. For NPR News in Woods Hole, Mass., I'm Eve Zuckoff. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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