Aquinnah, Massachusetts

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Aquinnah is a town located on the island of Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts. Prior to 1998 the town was officially known as Gay Head, which it is still called by most Islanders from the neighboring towns, but this name does not reflect as well the year-round population of a large American Indian population. The population was 344 at the 2000 U.S. census. It is known for its beautiful clay cliffs and quiet natural serenity, things which have become less common in the heavily populated Northeastern United States. Below the clay cliffs is "Jungle Beach" for the lack of clothing worn. It's one of the few nude beaches left in the U.S. More recently, it has become celebrated as a center of Wampanoag culture and a center of pride and tradition among members of the tribe, who make up about one-third of the town's voters. This area is one of the earliest sites of whaling, done from shore by the Wampanoags, long before the 19th century industry of whaling became the major maritime industry of Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket, and New Bedford, Massachusetts.



Before the arrival of English colonists, Aquinnah was inhabited by the Wampanoag, a Native American people, related to the larger Algonquin Nation of Southern New England. First settled by English colonists in 1669, it was officially separated from Chilmark and incorporated in 1870 as Gay Head, Massachusetts. In 1997, by popular vote of 79 to 76, the town changed its name to Aquinnah, which is Wampanoag for "land under the hill."[1]

Throughout its history, the town has been home to a Wampanoag community which gained federal recognition in 1987 and controls tribal lands in the town.

The most outstanding feature this small town has is its brightly colored clay cliffs. The clay cliffs are ecologically protected, and it is forbidden to climb the cliffs or touch the clay. The beach below the cliffs is called Moshup's Beach, named after a giant sachem who used to lead the tribe in days of old, and whom many myths are told. The ocean is a rare aqua color here, and the waves are quite high. Sometimes, a reddish color from the cliffs pours into the ocean. In the 60's and 70's, the 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. The cliffs are also patrolled often by a member of the Wampanoag tribe, who informs people about the importance of the cliffs to the tribe, and how they feature prominently in their spirituality and myths.


According to the United States Census Bureau, the town has a total area of 40.8 square miles (105.6 km²), of which 5.4 square miles (13.9 km²) is land and 35.4 square miles (91.7 km²) (86.85%) is water. Aquinnah ranks 334th in area out of 351 communities in the Commonwealth, and is the smallest town by land area on the Vineyard. Aquinnah is bordered by Vineyard Sound to the north and northwest, Chilmark to the east, and the Atlantic Ocean to the south and west.

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