Aquinnah Wampanoag powwow at Gay Head Circle
The word powwow comes from the Narragansett word powáw, which was sometimes translated as "magician" and literally means, "He dreams." Powwows were held in Gay Head/Aquinnah into the first half of the 20th century.
"It was somewhere in the '30s when they had the last one here," says Bettina Washington, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer. "There used to be a race from up top the circle, by the lighthouse, down to Quitsa. My dad won one year, but that's because the Narragansetts didn't show up." Even in those days, people travelled from off-Island to come to the powwow, and it was an occasion for family reunions and socializing.
This weekend's Aquinnah Wampanoag Powwow at the Gay Head Circle is a non-competitive event, without the dance contests that are a major feature of some modern powwows. Like traditional powwwows, it will be primarily a social gathering.
There will be a "spot dance," in which spots are selected within the dance circle. When the song ends, the person closest to that spot wins a small amount of money, usually five or ten dollars. There will be opportunities for the public to join in on the dancing. Also, each of the Wampanoag tribe's departments will have space to share information about their work and how it benefits the tribe and, in some cases, Martha's Vineyard as a whole.
At a traditional, pre-contact powwow, delegates would have met, but the schedule was open. "Delegates who needed to do their discussion would begin, and it could take two days, three days, a week," says Ms. Washington. "The only time frame was to do what needed to be done. Then there would be other times, like when the herring were running, that there would be a festival, and one tribe would host. During that time there would be meetings and it would be a good time to, say, look for a spouse."
Throughout the summer season, native American tribes around southern New England host powwows that draw visitors from their local communities as well as other tribes in the area. The season begins on the Fourth of July weekend with the Mashpee powwow. It picks up in August with four weekends in a row - powwows hosted by the Narragansett, Mohegan, Pequot, and Shinnecock Indian Nations. The Aquinnah Wampanoag Powwow, which celebrates not only Martha's Vineyard's native culture but also a wider circle of native cultures, is at the end of this circuit.
In the decades since the last powwow here in the 1930s, tribal traditions were kept alive through a variety of other celebrations and by day-to-day life in families and in the town. For many years most of the town's residents were part of the tribe, so many cultural events happened in and around the Town Hall, and Wampanoag legends and oral histories were taught alongside other subjects in the Gay Head school.
Tribesmen Jonathan Perry, Woody Vanderhoop, and Tobias Vanderhoop went to Gathering of Nations, North America's biggest powwow, which is held in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Along with other young people in the tribe, they wanted to revive their powwow traditions, and the current incarnation of the Aquinnah Wampanoag Powwow began.
For the first four years, this was a one-day event, but now in its fifth year, the powwow will take up two days, making it more accessible for off-Island visitors and vendors.
The first major event of the weekend will be the Grand Entry at around 1 pm on Saturday. Timing depends on how many dancers come, and when they arrive to procede two-by-two into the dance arena.
Immediately following the Grand Entry and honor songs will be a Memorial Song for the tribe's late Medicine Man, Luther Madison, who died earlier this year at the age of 84. Later, at around 3 pm, the tribe will honor the youth who revived the powwow traditions. On Sunday afternoon they will honor past chairpersons of the tribe in another ceremony.
"We're just hoping that the weather cooperates," says Ms. Washington.
The Fifth Annual Wampanoag Powwow, Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 12 and 13, Gay Head Circle, Aquinnah. One-day admission, $10 for adults, $5 for children 5-18 and seniors. Both days, $15 adults, $7.50 for children and seniors. Gates open at 11 am. 508-645-9265.
Amelia Smith is a freelance writer living in West Tisbury.