The third annual Aquinnah Youth Powwow on Sunday will have an Ivy League flavor. Not that Polos and Dockers will replace traditional breech clouts and jingle dresses, but this year the event, hosted by the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), will include 120 graduate students from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, courtesy of Tobias Vanderhoop, a prime mover in this event produced by tribal young people.
The Aquinnah Wampanoag people will be joined by hundreds of New England Mashpee, Pequot and Narragansett Native American counterparts on the Aquinnah sacred cliffs from noon until 6 p.m. with dancers, traditional food vendors and crafts sales. Rez Dog will be the host drum group with two other drums also performing.
“We have ties to those (Ivy League) institutions, historically and today,” Mr. Vanderhoop explained. A graduate student at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, majoring in public administration, Mr. Vanderhoop spread the powwow word among his classmates and 120 intrigued classmates signed up for the trip. “I believe it’s good for them to see there are native people living with their culture as part of their daily lives,” he said.
The youth powwow has quickly become an Island tradition attended by an estimated 1,000 participants and visitors. Although people of all ages attend, the focus is on young people from neighboring tribes and beyond who travel to the celebration on the seaside cliffs, according to Kristina Hook, a tribal elder with the tribe’s human services department and mentor to the youth group. Two apprentices with the tribe’s historic preservation office have faxed fliers to all the United South and Eastern Tribe members and others have distributed fliers at the Narragansett powwow and Mashantucket Pequots’s Schemitzun.
“We do the powwow right up on the cliffs; right up in the circle. They’re overlooking the south side and the surf, a three-minutes walk to the face of the cliffs which we hold sacred. We pump up those big drums and we dance for six hours and we usually have three or four traditional food vendors. Our own people bring out all their crafts and we go to it!” Ms. Hook said.
Nearly all of the tribal member graduates of Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School will attend college this fall, including one headed for Harvard and a Gates Millennium scholar who will attend Dartmouth, Others will travel to New Mexico State University and to Newfoundland for cultural study. “For a little bitty tribe, we have worked hard and (the students) just fill my heart,” Ms. Hook said.
Mr. Vanderhoop, 33, one of a very few speakers of the Wampanoag language, is in a mid-career program at the Kennedy School and will return to the Island after graduation next year to put skills honed in negotiation, leadership and diplomacy to work in tribal affairs and for other organizations. He and Ms. Hook credit Jesse Littledoe Baird, wife of an Aquinnah Wampanoag, with 12 years of painstaking work to reclaim the lost language. Ms. Baird holds a masters degree in linguistics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and has developed a language teaching syllabus for all levels of learning.
A key to reviving the Aquinnah powwow after 70 years in abeyance is funding from a drug prevention effort underwritten by the Department of Justice.
Ms. Hook is tasked with replacing five graduating seniors critical to the program’s success. The powwow is organized and hosted by a group of tribal teenagers, ages 13 to 18, who meet regularly in their spare time to plan the event. “They go to language class and every Wednesday night we do service projects for the tribe and the town, such as Halloween holiday parties, beach cleaning, picking cranberries for elders, things we are trying to bring back,” Ms. Hook said.
Tribal youth are Ms. Hook’s source of hope for the future. “For those of us in [middle age], the historical background is still there way deep in our hearts, so we’re half afraid and we just don’t step out and try. That’s what I’m hoping for these kids. I look at their ability to go forward without looking over their shoulders, to step out and take a chance and do the work. And if that carries into their adulthood and they come back here to have something to do with the tribe, we’ll be in really good shape,” she said.