Angel Fund Ornament Harkens To Monomoyick Wampanoag Traditions

By: Debra Lawless

The 2022 Chatham Angel Fund ornament features a Wampanoag “angel.” FILE PHOTO

CHATHAM – This year’s Chatham Angel Fund ornament is a little different from previous ornaments — it features a stylized Monomoyick Wampanoag angel drawn by a local artist and vetted by a local member of the Wampanoag Tribe.

“For years, we had schoolchildren in Chatham design our ornaments,” says Ginny Nickerson, who founded the Chatham Angel Fund back in 1990. “When we merged with Harwich that changed, since we support Chatham children only.” In recent years the Creative Arts Center in Chatham has often called for artists to design the ornament. Chatham-themed ornaments sell best.

This year Jamie Selldorff drew the ornament.

“In responding to the Chatham Angel Fund’s ‘call to artist,’ I was eager to design an ornament with a Wampanoag angel so that we would all remember the origins of Chatham and acknowledge the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah),” Selldorff said during an email interview last week. A bit earlier, when Selldorff served on the board of the Chatham Historical Society, the society received a grant to construct a wetu, which was built by members of the Wampanoag tribe. Selldorff’s first draft of the ornament included the wetu (or domed hut) but looked “too busy,” she says.

Selldorff stresses that she is not an artist and that she created the drawing for the ornament by doing multiple sketches with colored pencils. “Trying to get the proportions correct as well as our angel’s deerskin dress required a lot of revisions,” she recalls.

Once Selldorff was satisfied with the drawing, Nickerson reached out to Jill James, a member of the Wampanoag Tribe.

Nickerson says Selldorff’s drawing was “great and thoughtful,” “but we wanted to make sure that it was authentic.” James and Nickerson are lifelong friends, so it was natural that Nickerson would reach out to James “to make sure that we were respectful of the Wampanoag tribe. We wanted to honor those who came before us.”

James grew up in Chatham and still lives here, in her childhood home. Her suggestions for revising the ornament revolved around the angel’s dress “which seemed to be a bit too close to that worn by the tribes of the Southwest,” she says. “I suggested that instead of its being long-sleeved, it could be sleeveless and one-shouldered.

“I based this on what I knew was being worn by the female tribal members at our powwows, and although I don’t know this to be a fact, I have an idea that it would take more than one deerskin to make a dress like the one Jamie had designed originally. In the colder months, cloaks were made from the hides of furred animals to provide more warmth and coverage. I referenced photos from Plimoth Patuxet [Museums] and recommended that Jamie use them as a guideline.”

While the dress on an early drawing included some bright blue and green trim, James says the dress would have been dyed by berries and leaves “so the resulting colors would be more in the line of earth tones. Ornamentation and jewelry would be made from bones, shells, feathers, porcupine quills and fur with the eventual introduction of metals.

“As trading with Europeans increased, so would the materials used for clothing and jewelry. Our clothing was simple and functional and I don’t know when beadwork was introduced here,” she says.

In the final design, the young angel wears a deerskin dress in yellow and red. A banner runs across the dress that says “Monomoyick.” Her long black hair is held in two braids by the sides of her face. She wears a headband with a single feather. 

Also in the final design the angel is framed by corn. Corn, beans and squash were important foods for the Wampanoags. “It’s amazing to learn that even the stalks and husks were used,” James says. “We utilized as much as we could of everything that we killed or harvested.”

And finally, she says that although “we didn’t have ‘angels’ in the Christianized sense until Christianity was introduced, we did have spirits who were very similar. I’ve discovered that there are common threads running through most religions.”

While James and Selldorff didn’t work together directly, James found Selldorff open to her suggestions and tweaks. She credits Nickerson for doing a “fabulous job of conveying my ideas.” She says she is grateful to both for bringing the Monomoyick Wampanoag angel ornament to fruition.

Nickerson calls James “an invaluable source of knowledge and we thank her for her guidance and advice.”

The Chatham Angel Fund was established to assure all Chatham children have a warm and merry Christmas. The fund works with the Chatham Children’s Fund to provide winter clothing and other necessities for children. Proceeds from the fund are given annually to the Monomoy Community Services after-school program and for other year-round needs.

The 2022 Chatham Angel is $22 and available in Chatham at Ben Franklin Store, Chatham Children’s Shop, Cape Cod 5 Savings Bank, The Chatham Home, Christmas Joy, The Cook’s Nook, The Mayflower, The Hair Company, Puritan Clothing and Yankee Ingenuity. Previous year’s ornaments are also available.

The Chatham Boy Scouts, Troop 71, will also sell the Chatham Angel on Friday, Dec. 9 from 6 to 9 p.m. at Kate Gould Park during the Christmas Stroll.