Who was Ruth (West) Coombs?

Ruth West Coombs, ca. 1950s. P178G

Ruth (West) Coombs was a Wampanoag singer born on Nantucket at the very end of the 19th century. She became well known on Nantucket and around New England for performing under her Native Peoples title, “Princess Red Feather.” Her concerts raised awareness about and promoted Wampanoag culture.

The Wampanoag are from the lands that are today called Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, Cape Cod, and Rhode Island. Wampanoag means “People of the First Light,” though it is sometimes translated as “People of the Dawn.” By some estimates (though it’s quite hard to confirm), the Wampanoag Nation had as many as 40,000 people in 67 villages in the 1600s. Today, it is estimated that between 4,000 and 5,000 Wampanoag live in New England.

Ruth Coombs performed all over the Cape. Via radio, her voice reached even farther. She sang on New Bedford’s local radio station WHBH (which is still around today), and she participated in a radio program called “Spreading New England’s Fame” on the Yankee Network. In addition, Coombs worked as a dressmaker in both New Bedford and Nantucket. In 1960, she was on the costume team for the Nantucket Theater Workshop’s production of the 18th-century Venetian comedy “The Servant of Two Masters.” The costumes were described in the Inquirer and Mirror as “outstanding in their flamboyance.”

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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