Dean Stanton
In full tribal regalia, Dean Stanton stands ready to participate in last weekend's powwow. Photos by Ralph Stewart

Heritage in the hands of Island youth

By Michelle Nepton - September 13, 2007

The sounds of Native American music, the beauty of the Gay Head cliffs, the spectacular costumes, and the delicious food all combined to make last Saturday's annual powwow in Aquinnah a feast for the senses.

More than 600 Islanders, tourists, Aquinnah Wampanoags, and visiting tribe members participated in the powwow, sponsored by the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe Youth Group. The sacred and colorful clay cliffs of Gay Head were transformed by the native music, dance, food and crafts of the Wampanoags and other Native American Tribes.

Jonathan Perry, the master of ceremonies for the event, opened the powwow by welcoming visitors from near and far. Representatives from the Aquinnah, Mashpee, Narragansett, ChiChi Navajo, Alaskan Athamaskin, Mexican Aztec and others worked together to create a true cultural exhibition. Woody Vanderhoop, a mentor of the Youth Group, opened with a prayer in the Wampanoag language, which has not been spoken fluently in many years. He said, "We are thankful for the opportunity to share together today...feelings of camaraderie and good will."

Tabitha Sylvia
Tabitha Sylvia proves you're never too young to appreciate tradition.

Three years ago, the Tribe's Human Services Department received a grant from the Department of Justice with the goal of reducing use of drugs and alcohol as well as violence within the sovereign nation of the Aquinnah Wampanoag community. According to Kristina Hook-Leslie, a youth group mentor, the group went to the Tribal Elders for permission to use the grant to re-introduce an Island-sponsored powwow, which the Island has not had since the 1930s. "It seemed like it was lost here," said youth group secretary Thomas Fantasia, an Martha's Vineyard Regional High School junior. The youth group consulted with the Tribal Council who gave their permission and support to make the powwow a reality. She said, "The Elders believe that the future of the tribe depends on the youth." She explained that the main functions of the youth group are to prevent poor decisions and provide healthy cultural alternatives to drugs, including drum circles, beading, weaving, and other cultural leadership events in the community.

Sights and sounds

The colors, smells, traditional dress, music, and dance provided a festive atmosphere full of cultural flavor. Traditional Native American food served included Indian pudding, sassafras tea, native smoked bluefish and salmon, wild quail, buffalo and deer meat, and Indian Taco, a type of fried dough with beef and vegetables. Carmen Tubb of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe was working hard to serve the long lines waiting for a taste of the rich culture. There were also vendors from all over the area selling native crafts, jewelry, and clothing. One vendor, Jannette Vanderhoop, a tribal member who works for the Aquinnah Cultural Center, makes and sells her own jewelry. She collects and drills wampum from the Island, finds shells on her travels, weaves hemp, and uses feathers from local quail and seabirds. The slogan for her art is "natural, found, and recycled materials."

Dressed in native Wampanoag regalia, Ms. Vanderhoop was excited to be dancing and selling her art at the powwow. "It's a great location and it builds a sense of community," she said. "I think we do it more for ourselves than the tourists."

Jannette Vanderhoop
Displaying her handcrafted jewelry, tribal member Jannette Vanderhoop greets visitors with a smile.

Dance circle

A major aspect of the powwow was the many dances associated with different tribal cultures. Plenty of spectators became participants when Mr. Perry invited everyone to dance the Circle Dance, symbolizing the constant flow of life and how we are all interconnected. The circular dance arena was set on the highest part of the field with a small fire in the center. According to John Greatwolf Pompey from the Narragansett tribe, the fire is the most significant piece of the arena. A medicine man must first light the sacred fire to cleanse the circle. A fire tender then keeps the fire burning throughout the powwow. "While [the tribal members] are dancing, they should be praying. The fire sends the prayers to the Creator." Pompey was dressed in Eastern regalia, including a wampum belt, feather hat, and coo stick - a dance stick covered in rabbit fur and red-tailed hawk feathers. He was part of the elaborate Northern Traditional Dancers, and said "[The dancing has] been in my heart all my life, but I learned the dance steps from my Elders".

A local MVRHS senior, Emily Carter, came to support a friend who was dancing in the powwow. "I think it's so great that so many people are coming together for something positive where we can all learn about the Wampanoag culture," she said.

Elise LeBovit, owner of the Duck Inn in Aquinnah, said, "I love it. I love the chance that the kids have to really excel. And of course I really love the Duck Dive Dance," where the men use their bodies to look like graceful ducks diving into water.

Niyol Paqui Moraza Keeswood, a 13-year-old ChiChi Meca Navajo, danced the beautiful and graceful Grass Dance alone. She was dressed in traditional Grass Dancer clothing with long fringe, which was blowing in the wind like grass. The steps were used to lay the grass down during harvesting seasons, and Niyol learned from watching other Grass Dancers.

Another young dancer, Susannah Maher from the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, was dressed in bright pink and orange. She explained that, "this type of women's fancy dance didn't start to be developed until the 1960s, and that's when dresses like this were made." Before then, women dancers used slower and slighter movement in their dance. She added, "A lot less attention was drawn to the women than the fancy [men's] dance," during powwow exhibitions, contests, and other tribal events. They began choreographing dancing more like traditional men's dances, where more exertion, force, and speed is used in the movements.

The Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe Youth Group and everyone involved hope to continue the powwow as a newfound Island tradition. Once the tradition grows, some of the youth group members are hoping that it will become a two-day event. Donald Widdis, proud chairman of the youth group, said to the crowd "The reason we're here today is because the kids kicked the adults in the butt and got the powwow back." He also thanked everyone, especially the dancers, for attending and asked everyone to enjoy the day of cultural exhibitions. He finished with a smile, and said "Just stay off the cliffs."

Michelle Nepton is a contributing writer to The Times.