Cultural celebration and preservation took place over the weekend during the Aquinnah Powwow, hosted by the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah). The annual event returned to the Aquinnah Cliffs after a two-year hiatus due to COVID-19. Aaron Athey, a member of the Mohegan Tribe in Connecticut, acted as the emcee for the event.
“It’s a beautiful day,” Athey said to the crowd. “We’re really looking forward to sharing our culture through song and dance.”
Powwows are “the Native American people’s way of meeting together, to join in dancing, singing, visiting, renewing old friendships, and making new ones,” according to powwows.com.
Even before the grand entry took place on Saturday, the grass area fenced off for the powwow was bustling with activity. Attendees checked out vendor tents, and drum groups warmed up and sang in their respective indigenous languages, starting with the Eastern Suns from the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe.
“It’s always exciting to be here,” Jannette Vanderhoop, an Aquinnah Wampanoag member and a vendor, said about the powwow. Vanderhoop highlighted the wampum she made. She said she has sold her work since the first powwow in 2005.
The powwow sustained a jovial and gregarious atmosphere. “I’ve been seeing a lot of people, and it’s always good to see my brothers, sisters, and other people,” Aquinnah Wampanoag Chief Ryan Malonson said during his welcome remarks. “Be courteous, I ask, and enjoy.”
The grand entry, a part of the powwow people were asked not to photograph or videotape, happened a little past 12:30 pm, with a procession of flag-bearing indigenous veterans and law enforcement officers. They were followed by a stream of people, young and old, walking in a bouncing manner. The drum group Neeshla, from the Ho-Chunk Tribe in Wisconsin, performed a flag song, and the Black Brook Singers from the Aquinnah Wampanoag conducted the veterans song.
“Thank you all for your sacrifice,” Athey said after the flag ceremony was completed. He also introduced various people who partook in the grand entry, such as the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe’s leaders and elders, alongside dignitaries from other tribes like the Mashpee Wampanoag and Pequot.
Aquinnah Wampanoag tribal chairwoman Cheryl Andrews-Maltais concluded the formalities by asking people to reflect during the powwon on “all that we’ve been through.”
After Andrews-Maltais’ remarks, U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Katherine Woods was invited to make a recruitment pitch.
An intertribal dance soon followed. The four drum groups took turns providing the beat, and tribal members took to the dance, displaying different styles like the two-step and the crow hawk.
Carol Vandal, a member of the Aquinnah Wampanoag, explained to The Times the importance of the powwow dances. “We do an intertribal, which means all nations, all people dance. It’s showing respect for our elders, our mother earth, for our history and our future,” Vandal said. “When I was first taught to dance, or talked about dancing, they said, ‘You know, you’re dancing for those who can’t.’ For those who have gone on, and for those who have yet to come.”
The dancing may “incorporate good thoughts” and be for healing purposes, according to Vandal.
“If you notice the sounds of the drums, we call that ‘the heartbeat of America,’” Vandal said. “That’s our heartbeat, and when you hear that drum, you are moved by it, and like they say, the spirit moves you. That’s what happens when the drum goes, and you’re dancing on our sacred Earth … whenever I hear our drums it makes me happy. My heart soars with the eagles and with the osprey. You just feel a power that surges through you, and just when you feel you’re getting tired dancing out there, all of a sudden you get a resurgence of energy when you need it.”
Vandal said this resurging energy is “typical of our people, who have strived to survive in a country where we’ve been erased, in a country where we’re invisible.”
The return of the powwow was also an opportunity for people to reconnect with their Indigenous roots. “It’s great [to be back]. We’ve had a few hiccups. We had to dust some rust off and get back to figuring out how things work,” Aquinnah Wampanoag tribal councilman Kevin Devine said. “It’s absolutely great. It’s great to connect with all of the people, the community. Our sister tribe from over in Mashpee comes down here and supports us. It’s great, man. You just have a gathering with the community coming together and have a bunch of fun.”
Devine is a U.S. Army veteran, and said he was “disconnected from the tribe” during his 28 years of service. He retired three years ago, and is learning more about the Aquinnah Wampanoag culture, such as working with David Vanderhoop and Sassafras Earth Education on medicinal plants. Devine added that the Aquinnah Wampanoag are also passing on the culture and traditions of the tribe to their youth. His daughters are also “getting very involved” with learning Aquinnah Wampanoag traditions.
“The powwow means a lot. Traditionally, it means we get together and connect, and to talk about community storytelling, and just love each other,” Devine said. “So, it’s good.”