Weird History, Part Eight: Stories From Wampanoag Culture That You Can Share at Thanksgiving


painting depicting the first thanksgiving

Ah, November, that precious time of year when people post annoying Facebook statuses, Americans pretend to enjoy turkey, and US schoolchildren learn about the first Thanksgiving.

Most American kids do learn that it was the Wampanoag tribe that the Pilgrims met after disembarking the Mayflower, but we don’t learn (or at least remember) much more than that. So I decided to poke around the Internet and dig up some information about the culture, specifically the mythology, of the Wampanoag tribe.

The Wampanoag (a name meaning “easterners” or “people of the east”) lived primarily in the area that makes up modern-day Massachusetts and Rhode Island. About 3,000 Wampanoag Indians still live in that area, many of them on a reservation on Martha’s Vineyard. Like many other cultures, some Wampanoag myths are based on the geography of the area.

Here are a few major characters that play a role in their stories and history:

The giant Moshup is one of the more prominent figures in Wampanoag legend. He even has a stretch of Massachusetts beach named after him. One version of his story is that Moshup created the island of Martha’s Vineyard (known to the Wampanoag as Noepe or Nope) to get away from violence on the mainland. When he got homesick, he tried to make a bridge back to the mainland by scattering huge boulders into the water. He never finished the bridge, but the boulders remain, known as “Devil’s Bridge.”

Gay Head Cliffs off Massachusetts

In some legends, Moshup is married to Squant, a sea-woman born from wind and waves. He followed her into the water, succumbing to an enchanted sleep that allowed him to survive beneath the surface. Supposedly, winter storms on the Massachusetts coast arise because Squant becomes afraid that Moshup will never wake. Other sources say, however, that Squant (or Squannit) was not a giant sea-woman but one of the Makiawisug, or Little People. These beings were helpful spirits of the woods that, much like some types of elves in other cultures, received gifts of food as gestures of respect.

waves crash on rocks

Another member in the cast of Wampanoag characters is known as the Pukwudgie. Harry Potter fans, particularly Pottermore users, may already be familiar with the Pukwudgie, as it’s also the name of one of the houses at a North American wizarding school. In Wampanoag legend, however, the Pukwudgie is a creature of short stature, about 2-3 feet, and described as half-troll, half-porcupine. They were said to be found in the forests of Massachusetts. Character descriptions range from sometimes-helpful mischief-makers to tormentors and kidnappers, and even the killers of Moshup or his sons.

The evil spirit Hobbomock was the Wampanoag version of the bogeyman, and equated with Satan among those Wampanoag who converted to Christianity. Lurking in darkness and shadows, Hobbomock was supposedly the source of all evil and illness. He was a shapeshifter who took many forms, including enemies, the dead, and a horned serpent.

horned serpent cave drawing
Poor snakes, getting a bad rap in so many cultures

Details about the Thunder Bird have not survived the centuries. Some versions say that it was an enormous eagle that carried off one of Moshup’s children. Another source says that the bird had carried away large prey such as deer and, eventually, human children. When Moshup tracked down the giant bird, he found a nest of chicks and the bones of the kidnapped humans. The great bird had feared Moshup, and for good reason–the giant killed the bird and freed the humans from its terror.

flying eagle

To learn more about the Wampanoag people–past and present–check out this website in particular. This month, as you give thanks and remember the struggles of the Pilgrims, take a moment to learn a little more about the Native tribe that helped them through their difficult seasons. And Happy Thanksgiving!

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2 thoughts on “Weird History, Part Eight: Stories From Wampanoag Culture That You Can Share at Thanksgiving

  1. Excellent! I love learning about cultural mythologies, and your summary introduced me to some stories and creatures I’d never really heard of. One of the short stories I’m trying to get published is based on an Ohlone legend.

    1. Thanks! I’ve gotten more interested in Native American culture, particularly after traveling out West and seeing some First Nations-based museums. Good luck with the short story. Sounds interesting!

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