A Tale of Two Islands

Photo by Paul Mayer


Harbors, lighthouses, beaches, wildlife, and farmlands describe both Martha’s Vineyard and San Juan Island, two seemingly idyllic islands at sea. Just off Cape Cod, Massachusetts, Martha’s Vineyard is twice the size and primarily a summer colony. North of Seattle in the Salish Sea, just off B.C. Canada, San Juan Island also attracts its share of summer visitors. The climate on both islands is more temperate than the mainland. “The Vineyard” enjoys cooler summers and warmer winters than inland by a few degrees, and San Juan Island, far more sun than Seattle and an unusually dry climate for Western Washington.

Whaling brought Martha’s Vineyard to prominence in the 19th c, while a booming timber industry coupled with lime kiln operations nearly devastated old growth trees on San Juan Island. Today both islands are extraordinarily sensitive to fragile, vital ecosystems on land and water. On Martha’s Vineyard, approximately 65% of the island has been designated “Priority Habitat” for rare and endangered species of plants and animals. Similarly, San Juan Preservation Trust purchases and receives donations of land, protecting saltwater shores, woodlands, and one of the last remaining native prairies. 

Originally inhabited by indigenous people—Coast Salish peoples in the San Juan Islands, and Wampanoag people on Martha’s Vineyard where there is still a small population. Coast Salish tribes moved about all the San Juan Islands, following the seasons in what archaeologists call “a seasonal round,” fishing, hunting, and harvesting. As the U.S. government claimed the islands, it opened the land to homesteading for U.S. citizens, running Native Americans off the land they knew. 

Meanwhile over on Martha’s Vineyard, the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head is embroiled today in a court battle over the transformation of a community center into a casino on their reservation. So it’s not all roses there either. 

Here we are, two islands at sea all these years later without getting the first thing right: our relationship with indigenous peoples. We’re all on borrowed land.

Never forget that, we are all on borrowed land.


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11 responses to “A Tale of Two Islands

  1. Don Brown

    Such beautiful writing – as usual

  2. Yes we are. I canna forget it.

    Sent from my iPhone


  3. In my anti racist listening group, we have wrestled with how to frame this, that we are on unceded indigenous land, belonging to Coast Salish peoples.
    We have tried both the very specific, but then run into the Pig War and its consequence of dividing tribes or bands into U.S. and Canada, making for a very long, though accurate preamble, to any work, We have also tried the general, which I have come to prefer… like this: “We acknowledge that we occupy unceded Indigenous land belonging to Coast Salish peoples.” Then if we need to. we can add: Unceded means that this land was never surrendered, relinquished or handed over in any way. (Courtesy of The Simon Fraser Public Interest Research Group), Waking up is a slow process, coming in layers, isn’t it? Thank you for your blog.

  4. I love what you said, “Waking up is a slow process, coming in layers, isn’t it?”
    It is indeed.
    After posting my piece I learned from a friend who has family on Martha’s Vineyard that in 1997 Gay Head changed its name to Aquinnah, one of the two tribes of Wampanoag people in Massachusetts. That’s how long since I’d been there. But some places are forever with you, and I feel this way about both islands.

  5. Bill Funkhouser

    I love how you showed the similarities of the 2 islands. Interesting and good reminder that “we are all on borrowed land.” I used to visit a nursery called Heronswood in Kingston, WA. It is now a bot. garden which I have not seen, but thinking of your island off the WA coast brought back fond memories.

    • I love that you were here, Bill, and when things get rolling again in our country you should return and we can all make a pilgrimage to Heronswood together. An awful lot happened there. In 2000 Dan Hinkley sold the botanical nursery to W.Atlee Burpee & Company, where it promptly fell into bankruptcy, was shut down (2006), and neglected–all those plants–for six years.
      Then in 2012 the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe, who have a reputation for conscientious environmental stewardship, purchased Heronswood at auction and “the rebirth and revealing of the now overgrown landscape began.” By all accounts it’s a treasure once again. The tribe’s ancestral lands include the site of the garden.

      • Bill Funkhouser

        Thanks for the update! I knew about Burpee and the bankruptcy. I also knew it was not a bot garden, but not the details. I hope you got to see Heronswood when Dan still had it. It was beautiful and such a collection. He was an amazing collector and gardener.

  6. So wonderfully written. Thanks for the post.

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