The magic of the Aquinnah Wampanoag Powwow

Members of several tribes gathered at Aquinnah Circle to celebrate the annual powwow.

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The 2023 Aquinnah Powwow cultural celebration took place over the weekend. According to powwows.com, powwows are Native American gatherings where they come together to sing, dance, reconnect with old friends, and celebrate their rich ancestral histories. And there was a lot of that to be seen. The Aquinnah Powwow was hosted by the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), and with the help of tribal administration executive assistant Barbara Spain, I learned that the other tribes in attendance included Nipmuc, Mashpee Wampanoag, Narragansett, Lumbee, Crow, Eastern Pequot, Wabanaki, Taino, Asonet, and Herring Pond.

I arrived at noon on Saturday, and there was already a large crowd of people milling around — native folks dressed in traditional regalia as well as street clothes, and people from all over the Island community, checking out the vendors, laughing, catching up, and enjoying snacks and beverages from the food tent. Aside from the welcoming and friendly people working the admission tent, the first person I spoke to was Chief F. Ryan Malonson of the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe.

“This is a very ceremonial time,” Chief Malonson said. “The powwow is a celebration of the end of summer season, coming into harvest time. Then in the spring, we’ll start all over again. It’s like a homecoming. Some tribal families have moved off-Island, but many come back home for the powwow.”

Chief Malonson explained a little about what to expect. “The grand entry starts off the celebration. There will be flag bearers, dancers, visiting tribal dignitaries, council members, head woman, head man, and children,” Chief Malonson shared. “We ask people to be respectful and to ask someone if they want to take their picture. There will also be times throughout the ceremony when we ask that no pictures or videos be taken.”

After chatting with Chief Malonson, I made my way over to the area where the vendors were. Wampanoag tribal elder and artist Donald Widdiss’ booth was the first to catch my attention. Widdis’ stunning work included wampum bracelets and necklaces made from quahog shells — the shells cut by snips and diamond grinders to create their tubular shape. The creamy purple-and-white shell beads were beautiful, creating striking pieces of jewelry. “I make everything by hand. Carve the beads and braid the fibers used to hold the beads in place,” Widdis said.

A little further along, I was drawn to Dan Shears’ booth, whose earrings, broaches, and bracelets were made from pink conch shell and quahog shell, as well as copper. Shears also makes birchbark baskets. “This is my first year here as a vendor. I’ve come before as a dancer. I’m from the Abenaki tribe in Berkshire County, and I love coming over for the powwow. It’s really like a family reunion. Actually, I wanted to be a vendor this year, so I could get to meet more tribal people,” Shears said.

One of the goals of this year’s powwow was to bring awareness to the epidemic of murdered and missing native women, so I headed to the Kinship Heals tent to learn more. Kinship Heals is part of the Northeast Native Network of Kinship and Healing. According to its website, Kinship Heals are women of the Wampanoag nation, the People of the First Light, who are on a journey to end domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, and sex trafficking in their communities.

According to Native Women’s Wilderness (nativewomenswilderness.org) and Native Hope (nativehope.org), as of 2016, the National Crime Information Center has reported 5,712 cases of missing American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls. Yet the U.S. Department of Justice missing persons database has reported only 116 cases. Murder is the third leading cause of death for indigenous women (Centers for Disease Control), and the majority of these murders are committed by non-native people on native-owned land.

“Part of why we’re here today is to stand in solidarity with women who are missing and with those who have lost a family member,” Jennifer Randolph, executive director of Kinship Heals, said. Randolph explained that one of the biggest issues is when large groups of men come into a community to work. “We’re worried about the number of men coming to the Island to work on the wind farm — some of whom are coming from decommissioned oil rigs. There hasn’t been a discussion about this in terms of safety for women — and not just Native women. The most vulnerable women are those who live in a place that has a transient population, lack of housing, and little access to services. Which is happening right here. We need to have these conversations.”

According to Northwestern University Law Review, the crisis of sexual violence plaguing Indian Country is made drastically worse by oil-pipeline construction, which often occurs near reservations. The “man camps” constructed to house workers are hotbeds of rape, domestic violence, and sex trafficking. And American Indian women are frequently targeted due to a perception that men will not be prosecuted for assaulting them.

It was hard not to think about this as I watched many of the native women and young girls standing near the space where they would soon be dancing. Dressed in their regalia, they looked happy, proud, and focused. The emcee for the powwow, Jason Beatty, a Ojibwa tribal member from Massachusetts, was funny and engaging. And though his jokes and banter didn’t fully alleviate the sadness I felt over my conversation with Randolph, he brought an element of lightness and happiness to the powwow, seamlessly weaving in information about the struggles and the joy experienced by native people.

“There is no one way Indigenous people act. We eat, sleep, drink, and find love just like anyone else. We also pass gas,” Beatty chuckled, and so did the crowd.

Beatty explained the line up and then the Grand Entry began. A procession of flag-bearing Indigenous veterans and law enforcement officers came into the circle, followed by native people of all ages. Men from Black Brook, Herring Creek, and Alamosa Lake tribes played drums and sang. “Can you hear the drumbeat?” Beatty asked the crowd. “It’s like a heartbeat.” Beatty went on to explain that you can always tell when native people weren’t included in the creation of movies and TV shows when you hear the stereotypical drumbeat often used to reflect the entrance of Native Americans. “It’s too fast!” Beatty laughed. “If your heart is beating that fast, you better get to the hospital.”

Aquinnah Wampanoag medicine man Jason Baird offered a prayer: “We dance in honor of our chief, elders, dignitaries, council members, ancestors, friends, relatives, and the land. Creator, we’re thankful for all of our relatives and friends from so many nations. We ask your blessing for the sea, the land, and for all of those we’ve lost. You [speaking to the crowd] are welcome here. Enjoy. Be kind to one another.”

The dances throughout the powwow varied — some faster-paced and intense; some softer and slower — all powerful and moving. Some of the dances included an intertribal dance, where people from each tribe entered the circle and danced together as a community. There was a welcome dance, also called a friendship dance, where audience members were invited to join in. The Men’s Eastern War Dance consisted of several young men, along with a few older men, stepping with purpose around the circle, holding fans, dance sticks, and traditional weapons. The Women’s Eastern Blanket Dance was lovely and graceful. Women wore blankets draped around their shoulders, occasionally turning in circles to showcase their blankets. Beatty explained that the blanket dance was traditionally performed by women for their suitors. If a woman liked her suitor, she’d drop her blanket at his feet at the end of the dance. Other dances included the Fancy Dance and the Jingle Dance, which were both stunningly beautiful, with people dressed in colorful regalia and embroidered shawls and moccasins.

Though I could have stayed all night if I’d been allowed to, I had to head out. I felt honored to have witnessed the powwow, and moved to learn more about the dances, history, and artwork showcased, as well the environmental work the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe is immersed in. Luckily for folks who were not able to make it on Saturday, they still had an opportunity on Sunday to catch the magic of the Aquinnah Wampanoag Powwow.