While the vestiges of hurricane Hanna whipped rain onto the Aquinnah Circle and sucked at the canvas tent covering Saturday’s annual youth powwow, inside spectators dropped bills on the grass for fancy dancer Savannah Maher, 13, from Mashpee.
Rarely using more than the balls of the feet inside her moccasins, champion dancer Savannah swung and hopped her way around the tent, sending blue and yellow ribbon work flying out from her tribal dress. Dots of make-up spread out symmetrically from each eye and a single scalp feather shot up above her fabric-adorned braids.
Savannah, one of many New England tribal members who travelled to the Island for the day to attend the powwow, has been dancing since she was three years old. This summer she competed at the Schemtzun and Mohican powwows in Foxwood and Ohio, but in her first year in the teenager category, she failed to top any events. Anyway, she said, she was happier at an event like Saturday’s which was part exhibition, part social gathering.
The tribe, which also holds a spring social and annual Cranberry Day festival, reinstated the September powwow in 2005 after more than 30 years, thanks to the efforts of the tribal youth group.
“The kids just enjoyed going to the powwows and they finally took the initiative,” said tribal administrator Tobias Vanderhoop.
Sherry Pocknatt has attended a powwow somewhere in the country every single weekend this summer. Named Mashpee powwow princess in 1975, she has been cooking since the age of 12 and has made her living for 30 years traveling between powwows as a chef. She was at the Gathering of the Nations in Albuquerque in April, the largest powwow in the country.
Depending on what is available, she cooks squash, quail, bluefish, mussels and venison. Her brothers hunt for her and she is relying more and more on a supplier to supplement her produce.
“They want you to be USDA [certified] now,” she said.
In its fourth year, the Aquinnah event differs from competition powwows which take place across the country in the summer months. On Saturday traditional Eastern dance and song was punctuated with inter-tribal dances, during which drummers were free to roam between drums and all in attendance were invited to take to the dancing area.
“We just wanted to have an old form, traditional powwow,” said Tobias Vanderhoop, who was a youth group member before he was named tribal administrator earlier this year.
“Not to say [that in traditional powwows] there wasn’t some competition thrown in there just for fun. But our aim is to educate the community and to bring friends from all over the place. And it alleviates the stress of competition,” he added.
Mr. Vanderhoop performs old man, or war style, of dance and has won many dancing competitions including the Schemtzun powwow, which is considered the world championships.
The drums at Saturday’s powwow included Alamoosic Lake and Rez Dogz from the Indian Island Penobscot nation, Eastern Sons from Mashpee and the Black Brook Singers from Aquinnah. The Wampanoag Nation singers, made up of Wampanoag members from Aquinnah and Mashpee, also performed. Jonathan Perry, also a war dance competition winner, emceed the event, providing the backstory to traditional songs and dances. Introducing the duck dance, he explained that male “hunters” stalk the women “ducks” until, on a signal from the music, they form a bridge with their arms for the ducks run through. On another signal, the hunters drop their arms and trap a passing duck. Then the dance continues.
“Symbolism anyone?” Mr. Perry said with a grin.
“Some ducks like to be captured,” he added.
As part of a traditional Eastern dance in tribute to the sacred pipe, Mr. Vanderhoop and other male dancers lithely contorted into representations of the pipe as Mr. Perry played a tiny water drum to an infectious chorus of rattles and song.
Jason Baird of Aquinnah, an ex-member of the youth group, watched from the other side of the tent near the food stalls. Now married and putting the finishing touches on a house he has built himself, Mr. Baird doesn’t have the time he used to have to drum, but he attends every powwow and enjoys the atmosphere.
“This is more of a friendly thing, people can ask to jump on a drum, that way nobody gets left out,” said Mr. Baird as another chant, recited in unison, filled the tent, “It’s how people carry songs.”