A Nutuhqon (My Hook) Wampum Necklace

Trial and Error
and a Love for the History of Wampum Jewelry

By Kassidy Kilcoyne

July 2016

On a warm summer day on the Vineyard one might find locals relaxing on the beach or tourists out shopping in the bustling town of Edgartown. However, for well-known local artist Donald Widdiss, a nice day might consist of fishing in his favorite pond, working a few designs, or visiting his favorite spot on The Cliffs. Donald isn’t one to thrive on fast pace. He spends most of his time at his work area in Chilmark, or visiting his son Jason at his shop, Wayward Wampum in Aquinnah. “I’m not a person who goes into town a lot, I have no need, I’m most comfortable here [at The Cliffs],” he said.

Growing up in Wayland, Massachusetts, only a few short hours from the island, Donald and his family would spend most summers on the Vineyard visiting his grandmother who resided here. His mother, a traditional potter, used clay from The Cliffs for all sorts of projects. As a young boy, Donald knew that he wanted to be an artist. He attended the Massachusetts College of Art for art illustration and graphic design. After five years of college, at the age of 26, an opportunity arose for Donald to start his own screen printing business with a buddy. The venture lasted about 3 years, but eventually time got away from Widdiss as he had two sons and his priorities were elsewhere. “After going through the service, college, and a business, I got tired of the rat race and eventually
moved here,” Donald commented. It was 1976 when Donald made the permanent move to Martha’s Vineyard, which was also the time he became heavily involved in tribal politics.

Donald Widdiss with son Jason

Donald Widdiss with son Jason

Donald is a member of the Wampanoag Tribe, and his was mother an activist in the 50’s. In this environment, Donald grew up surrounded by Native American influence. “I didn’t know any different,” he explained. Over the next twenty years, he went from being an elected vice president to finally chairman of the Wampanoag Tribal Council, where he was called upon to attend meetings all around the United States. After a while Donald was ready for a different adventure. With his previous business experience working with a screen-printing company and his love for Native American culture, he partnered up to run an art gallery, highlighting art from lower area providences in Oak Bluffs. It was there when Donald discovered the world of Wampum Jewelry. “I grew up using natural materials and having an appreciation [for] using art that reflected this place and wasn’t ever really able to separate those,” he said. Many years of trial and error and a love for the history of Wampum jewelry are what drove Donald to become the extraordinary artist he is today.


A unique and coveted piece: Double stacked, cylindrical wampum beaded cuff

His jewelry is sold in seven different stores on the island, from Aquinnah to the down island towns. Donald’s handmade wampum bracelets and necklaces have become a sought after item to which he considers “flattering.” Each piece is truly an original and made completely by hand, so if you get a creation, you can see the hard work put into it. Started by just a simple fascination with the shell, Donald found a way to make the raw material into a statement piece seen all over the island today. From intricate designs like Moby Dick and the Vineyard itself to simple basic shapes, Donald developed an appreciation for the craft alongside his love for the island, and combined them. “This place is my muse…I make sure all my designs are true to the island,” he commented.

Soft rock music plays over the speakers in Wayward Wampum as Donald points out some of his pieces displayed in the glass case. With a proud look in his eye, he describes the difference of coloration in each one of his pieces. Donald’s commentary is lost when an old friend pops in. They start joking around as if they were seventeen again, and laughter fills the room. Today, Donald Widdiss spends his summer days doing what he loves, carving away at new designs or sharing a laugh surrounded by friends and family. When asked where he sees himself in five years, he chuckles before replying, “If I’m still alive, I want to be doing the same thing, but better and different because I would hate to do the same thing every day.”

You can find a wonderful selection of Donald Widdiss’ Wampum pieces at Driftwood Jewelry MV located in Oak Bluffs.