Gay Head powwow marks 25 years of federal recognition

Pow Wow dancers wore colorful dress. (left to right) Elizabeth Hoover of the Mohawk/Mikmaq tribe in a turquoise shawl; Taveyah Mills-Matthews, 8, of Mashpee; Amiaya Johnson, 5, of Mashpee; and Avani Johnson, 7, of Mashpee. — Photo by Lisa Vanderhoop

Playful breezes and and the light of an early autumn sun danced over the Gay Head cliffs last Saturday and blessed the 8th annual Powwow hosted by the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah). By definition, a powwow is a traditional Native American ceremony that features dance, feasting, and a blessing by a shaman for an event such as a marriage, a major hunt, or a gathering of nations.

The event followed the well-worn tribal and Island concept of “Island time.” The grand entry scheduled for noon, began at 1 pm. Tribal elder Edwin D. Vanderhoop, 86, led a contingent of Wampanoag dignitaries into the tent set up for the occasion and across a dance area for the presentation of customary gifts, presentation of flags, and an invocation delivered in the Wampanoag language and in English.

The ceremonies included the presentation of a handmade eagle staff to tribal leaders to commemorate 25 years of federal recognition. Also honored was the late Gladys Widdis, a longtime tribal leader and activist for federal tribal recognition, achieved in 1987, who died in June at the age of 98.

Earlier in the day, Tobias Vanderhoop, Wampanoag tribal administrator, delivered a learned discourse on Moshup, the legendary giant Native American who inhabited Aquinnah and figured in the creation of Noepe, the Wampanoag name for Martha’s Vineyard.

This powwow is a natural draw, given the setting overlooking the multi-hued cliffs, the beautiful traditional garb worn by various visiting tribal members from various states and tribes, and the visceral singing and drumming that impels the most ramrod stiff Yankee to join in the public dance. Singing and drumming were provided by Native-American groups that included The Eastern Sons from Mashpee, the Rez Dogs from Penobscot, Maine and the Storm Boyz from Narragansett, R.I.

The powwow could not entirely mask the undercurrents created by recent news coverage critical of the Gay Head tribe.

“This feels like a powwow without the Wow,!” one veteran powwow-goer murmured to a Times reporter, with a don’t-you-dare-quote-me stare.

One tribal volunteer who asked not to be identified, citing a recent editorial critical of tribal property stewardship and unneighborliness, pinned the blame for spare attendance at the door of The Times. “There was some truth in the editorial. But the timing? Just before the powwow? Well, it worked, didn’t it?” she said, gesturing to half-empty seating under the large tent that housed the entire event. By mid-afternoon, an estimated 200 attendees were strolling the powwow grounds.

But if the powwow represented an opportunity to reach out to nontribal members it was lost on Master of Ceremonies Jonathan Perry, who provided constant and ever-more petulant reminders to spectators and press photographers, to avoid flash photography, then any photography, “until we say so.”

Despite it all, an authentic cultural tone emerged and carried the day.

At the conclusion of speechifying, as the chanting and drumming rose to fill the space, the circle of traditionally garbed Native Americans, standing silent and still, were moved, one by one, to begin dancing in place.

The willingness of several culture-keepers, including Tobias Vanderhoop and Durwood (Woody) Vanderhoop, tribe grantsman and planner, to give themselves over completely to the dance ritual provided spectators with some insight into the past traditions that drew them to the event.

A tall, willowy Mic Mac tribal woman danced in a startling, cobalt blue floor-length outfit. Her flowing dress appeared to move with the sounds of the drums and chants.

Sienna Scott, a sign language interpreter for the deaf from Mendocino County, Calif., kept her eyes on the cultural performance as she chatted with a reporter.

“I’m so grateful that this powwow is happening and that I get to see it,” she said. “I have great interest in Native-American culture and try to find an event or powwow wherever I happen to be.

“I enjoy the differences and similarities between Native-American traditions. The Pomo tribe is dominant in our area. A very rich tradition with 32 separate dialects of the tribal language.”

Ms. Scott was visiting friends on the Island and is studying and researching the Island’s historic deaf culture as an adjunct to her work.

On Saturday and again on Sunday, visitors and tribal members rediscovered something of the Island’s oldest Native-American traditions.