Armchair Field Trip: Aquinnah, Massachusetts


If you've never been to Martha's Vineyard -- which, until this past weekend, I hadn't -- you might assume it's purely a sort of prep heaven, a land of Cape Codders and lobster-embroidered socks. Which it is, and I have the socks to prove it. Nonetheless, I was surprised to learn that the Vineyard, and specifically the town of Aquinnah on its southwest corner, is also known for three more unexpected attractions: the Wampanoag Native American tribe, a spectacular stretch of clay cliffs, and naked people.

You probably already know a little about the Wampanoag: they inspired many Thanksgiving traditions. (Remember Squanto?) Their numbers dwindled throughout the 17th and 18th centuries as they were hit by waves of epidemics -- there may have been as many as 12,000 Wampanoag in 1600, but by the time the Pilgrims arrived 20 years later, there were fewer than 2,000 on the mainland. By the end of King Philip's War, just 400 Wampanoag were left. Today, only the Martha's Vineyard Wampanoag have federal recognition as a tribe -- the Nantucket community was wiped out by yet another epidemic in 1763.

The Wampanoag do have one stunning asset to their name: the stripy red clay cliffs of Aquinnah, which rise 150 feet above the sea and were formed by retreating glaciers millions of years ago. They're on what's now official Native American property, nestled right up against a public beach. If they remind you of the white cliffs of Dover (except for the fact that they're brightly colored), you're not alone: British settlers in 1602 dubbed them the Dover Cliffs. The lighthouse on top of them, by President John Adams in 1798, was actually built from the clay below.

And then there are the naked people, who have been parading around Aquinnah on and off since the 1930s -- the far stretch of Moshup Beach, hidden from the road by the cliffs, is one of the few nude beaches left in New England. It's mostly popular with aging Baby Boomers now. Alas, the local police announced two weeks ago that beachgoers should start donning fig leaves or else expect to pay a $50 fine.