Native American Celebration in the Merrimack Valley
When you hear the word “powwow,” your imagination might conjure up images of a long-ago time when Native Americans lived off the land, making their clothing by hand out of animal skins, with adornments of bone and porcupine quills. They would meet to celebrate seasonal changes, to visit extended family, or to sell and exchange goods with other tribes. Today, 21st century Native Americans still gather at powwows in the Merrimack Valley to pass on traditions to their children, preserve their heritage and educate non-native people.
The word “powwow” comes from the Narragansett Eastern Algonquin language, according to the official website of the Nanticoke Indian Tribe, and is translated as “a gathering of Native American people,” but in a broader sense, a powwow is also a cultural event that showcases native artwork, handcrafts, singing, drumming and dancing.
I attended three powwows, each lasting two days, in Haverhill, Danvers and Woburn. The Massachusetts Center for Native American Awareness (MCNAA) sponsored the Haverhill and Danvers events. Founded in 1989 by Burne Stanley-Peters and her now-deceased husband Slow Turtle, the MCNAA’s mission is to “develop and implement programs that assist needy Native American residents with basic needs, college-related expenses, and cultural and spiritual enrichment,” as well as to increase public awareness of Native Americans and their culture. Stanley-Peters, Tony Silva and Claudia A. Fox Tree, all of whom are on the MCNAA’s Leadership Team, educated me about the culture of local Native Americans, who are often invisible to many in our communities.
The Woburn Residents’ Environmental Network (WREN) sponsored its 12th annual Native American Pow Wow at Spence Farm last July. WREN works with Woburn city officials to promote conservation and environmental awareness. Organized by Barbara Casey, Gerry Kehoe and other members of WREN, the Woburn powwow hosted many Native Americans from outside of Massachusetts, some from as far away as Michigan. A lot of Native Americans follow the “powwow circuit” during the summer, according to Casey, attending one in a different place every weekend. At the three powwows I attended, I met Native Americans from Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Pennsylvania and Maryland, and from Amesbury, Merrimac, Haverhill, Gloucester, New Bedford and Rhode Island.
The powwows were wonder-filled events that emphasized friendship and inclusion. I spoke with many Native Americans from different nations (tribes) and was permitted to photograph individuals, as well as their crafts and dances. Most people were happy to share their culture, crafts and traditions with me.
In addition to their cultural significance, powwows are also religious. I would liken them to the Feast of the Three Saints in Lawrence or the St. Anthony Feast in the North End of Boston, festivals that celebrate heritage and culture, as well as the religious beliefs of Italian-American descendants.
“We didn’t come from anywhere else,” says Fox Tree, a member of the Arawak tribe. “For thousands of years, this has been our land. We lived with this climate, this earth, these foods, seasons and animals. Our creation stories were born here, not in Europe or Africa or anywhere else. Unlike others, our culture is our religion.”
Native American creation stories feature crows and coyotes, wind and thunder, the North American seasons and vegetation, and storytellers still pass them down to children during powwows.
Most modern powwows are open to the public ( though in recent years, some have been cancelled due to COVID ), but there are rules of etiquette that should be followed. A Sacred Circle for dancing is created and then blessed by a shaman or spiritual leader. Songs are sung to invite ancestors to join the circle, and to celebrate national, state and tribal flags. For the first two or three sacred songs, the master of ceremonies says the dancers should not be photographed or recorded in any way. During other dances, and outside the circle, photography is allowed with permission.
Drum circles include a host drum and a visiting drum to carry the beat for singing and dancing. The drum is revered because it mimics the first sound that a person hears — the beat of their mother’s heart. The drum is integral to everyone’s life, regardless of family or tribal affiliation. Dances tell stories, including tales of battle. The importance of women to the tribe is enacted in “women’s straight dances,” during which women may salute the drum with turkey-feather fans. Some traditional dances include the crow hop, the women’s fancy dance, the jingle dance, and the grass dance. Men, women and children all participate in dances at various times.
The formal attire worn by dancers is called “regalia.” Native Americans view this clothing as a reflection of their true selves. Most regalia is made by its wearer, or a relative. Each piece of adornment, often made with traditional items such as clamshells (wampum), beads, feathers, flint and bone, has specific meaning to the wearer. Some pieces may have been made by relatives who have passed on, and veterans often use military insignia and badges as adornments.
As a photographer, I found the various regalia visually stunning. As important to me as the bright colors and swaying fringe were the hand-stitching and beading: a flint arrowhead from one woman’s grandfather; fans made of turkey feathers. Many Native Americans’ faces carry the look of their ancestors, so wearing traditional dress enables the living to embody predecessors known for their love of the land.
I want to thank everyone who allowed me to photograph them, whether dancing or not, and who spoke openly and generously with me. Particular among these are the Edmonds brothers, Lee BraveHeart and Harry Hawk (Pokanoket Wampanoag); Burne Stanley-Peters and Gene ShadowDancer Weeden (Apache); Jeanne DancingButterfly and Claudia A. Fox Tree (Arawak) and Claudia’s daughters Savannah and Indigo; Ricky LeapingDeer Simaratana (Pocasset Wampanoag); Joe Red Deer Guevara and John Peters (Mashpee Wampanoag); Kerri Helme and her sons Ezra, Pharoah and Quetzal, and Hoban Sanford (Wampanoag); and Clifford LionHeart Guy (Pokanoket Wampanoag).
To learn more about local Native Americans, contact the Massachusetts Center for Native American Awareness at MCNAA.org. They have lists of educational speakers and performers, including Claudia A. Fox Tree, who speak at schools and organizations about Native American culture.