Shinnecock Powwow returns for 63rd year
By Lauren Fedor
During the summer months, there is no shortage of celebrations, parties and social gatherings on the East End. Each weekend, the local population seems to multiply as people from all over flock to the area’s plays, art shows, sporting events and charity fund-raisers—and with the Labor Day holiday here, the coming days are sure to be no different.
But what few people realize is that arguably the largest and most elaborate celebration of the summer will take place this weekend at the Shinnecock Indian Reservation off Montauk Highway in Southampton.
A four-day event, the 63rd Shinnecock Indian Powwow is likely to attract more than 50,000 people for an eagerly anticipated weekend of Native American music, dancing, food, arts and culture, according to Lance Gumbs, a member of the Shinnecock Nation and co-chairman of the tribe’s powwow committee.
Proceeds from the weekend’s events will raise money for both the Shinnecock Presbyterian Church and the Shinnecock Tribe, he said.
“It’s an exciting weekend,” Mr. Gumbs said in a recent interview. “The powwow has a lot of meaning to us.”
In addition to attracting thousands of visitors, this year’s powwow will feature more than 100 native food and arts and crafts vendors, Mr. Gumbs said. He added that the weekend’s activities will center around dance competitions and musical performances, with contests and cash prizes totaling more than $50,000.
Though the powwow, which marks the corn harvest, was formally founded by Shinnecock Chief Thunderbird in 1946, Mr. Gumbs said members of the Shinnecock Nation have gathered with representatives of other tribes for centuries. He said Chief Thunderbird started the modern-day powwow to give the public a taste of Native American culture and heritage.
“We say this the 63rd powwow,” Mr. Gumbs explained, “but it’s really the 63rd that’s been open to the public.”
“We’ve gathered for hundreds and hundreds of years in this way,” he said. “A lot of people lose sight of that.”
“The outside public comes and sees the dancing and the singing, but for us it’s more than a social gathering—it’s an educational gathering,” he said. “There is a real educational purpose, to bring cultural awareness to the general public that our culture is alive and well in 2009.”
And though many tribes in the Northeast hold traditional powwows throughout the summer months, Mr. Gumbs said the Shinnecock event is among the most prominent.
“We are probably one of the largest powwows in the East,” he said. “We are certainly one of the oldest powwows that is open to the public.”
The inclusion of native vendors, Mr. Gumbs said, is one of the longest-standing traditions at the Shinnecock Powwow. Representing both locals and visitors alike, this weekend’s vendors will set up shop to sell handcrafted bead work, leather work, traditional clothing and food from their native tribes, he said. And while this year’s event is expected to bring many new vendors to the reservation, most will be returning to the powwow grounds for a second, third or fourth year.
In the case of Carolyn Brown-Gumbs, who sells traditional stuffed clams, fried clams and clams on the half shell, this year’s powwow will mark more than 20 years as a vendor.
Ms. Brown-Gumbs, whose children and grandchildren are members of the Shinnecock Nation, said in an interview this week that she has long enjoyed participating in the weekend’s festivities.
“It’s just a way of helping to do things in your community,” she said. Ms. Brown-Gumbs, who lives in Calverton, said she prepares and sells anywhere from 20 to 30 bushels of clams at the powwow each year. She said she begins preparing the clams more than a month before the event, and ends up storing them in five separate freezers until the big weekend arrives.
“It’s a very, very important event,” she said of the powwow. “It’s a gathering of friends and family, and it’s very rewarding.”
“It gives you a great respect of your inner self, and you get to see God in all His glory,” she added.
Like Ms. Brown-Gumbs, many others involved in the weekend’s celebrations emphasized that though the powwow is a fund-raiser for the tribe, it is principally a cultural, spiritual event.
Gordell Wright, a lead singer of the Shinnecock Young Bloods drum group and trustee of the Shinnecock Tribe, said many visitors often don’t recognize the spiritual nature of native music.
“The songs have meaning. It’s not just hooting and hollering—it’s essential to who we are,” he said. “Without that drum, without that singing, without that heartbeat, many aspects of our culture would be lost. There is a spirituality behind it. It’s not just an instrument.”
“The drum group is pretty much essential to the powwow,” he explained. “The drum itself is the heartbeat of the people.”
And Mr. Gumbs agreed.
“The drum is the heartbeat of any powwow,” he said, elaborating that the stage upon which this weekend’s dancers will perform is in the shape of a drum.
“We dance up on that drum because it is our heartbeat,” he said. “It is the face of the Shinnecock.”
The powwow’s dancing competitions are arguably the weekend’s most eagerly anticipated events, he said. Dancers of all ages, from elementary to elders, perform in a variety of dancing styles, including traditional, war, blanket, jingle, fancy and shawl. And though the competitions do result in winners and losers, with thousands of dollars of prize money up for grabs, many of those involved again said the practice is a spiritual one.
“Even though we dance in competition, we dance for our families and we dance for our ancestors,” Mr. Wright explained. “Competition is a small part of the overall meaning.”
“Dancing and singing brings a sense of pride, a sense of joy,” he said.
And though he has traveled to powwows across the country, Mr. Wright simply said none compare to the Shinnecock event.
“It’s home,” he said.
The 63rd Annual Shinnecock Indian Powwow will be held Friday, September 4, through Monday, September 7, on the grounds of the Shinnecock Indian Reservation off Montauk Highway in Southampton. Admission is $12 for adults and $8 for children, seniors and the handicapped, and tickets can be purchased in advance. Proceeds from the event will benefit the Shinnecock Presbyterian Church and the Shinnecock Tribe. Grounds open at 3 p.m. on Friday, with a 7 p.m. grand entry. Festivities will continue at 10 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday, with a noon and 7 p.m. grand entry each day, and on Monday at 10 a.m. with a noon grand entry. The grounds close at 5 p.m. on Monday. For more information, call 283-6143, ext. 7 or visit ShinnecockNation.com.