Close Up and Personal at the Shinnecock Powwow

Note: Close Up and Personal at the Shinnecock Powwow was written by  James Keith Phillips, the winner of the 2012 Dan’s Literary Prize for Nonfiction. Read his winning story, “Magic Shirts” by clicking here.

This year was Shinnecock’s 66th pow-wow. I’ve been dancing in it since I was five years old. Now here I am, dancing some 50-odd years later (ahem, in the Golden Age category), but it still gets my blood hot to be here. I’ve been on the pow-wow trail since April, but Shinnecock is like homecoming—there’s something special about this gathering. Yeah, it’s just another pow-wow…and then again, it’s not.

Shinnecock grand entry starts from the eastern side of the grounds between the Shinnecock Outpost and the Brown’s stand, where they serve their famous stuffed clams. The smell from that dish and everything else the family cooks makes some of the waiting dancers joke about getting a plate before the procession starts.

As dancers assemble, you can feel the energy in the air; people greet old and new friends, make final adjustments to their regalia, dance in place, or just stand, taking it all in. The arena director calls out instructions about who goes where: flag carriers first, then visiting tribal officials, elders and princesses, followed by all the dance categories; men’s Golden Age, Eastern War, Northern and Southern Plains, Grass and Fancy, women’s Golden Age, Eastern Blanket, Northern, Southern, Jingle, Fancy Shawl, and children. The Aztec dancers always bring up the rear with their brilliant headdresses and synchronized steps. When the arena director gives the “go” signal, the first drumbeat electrifies the dancers—like lighting the tree at Rockefeller Center.

The procession winds around the platform on the left, with the crowd on the right held back by ropes and security personnel, past large, booming speakers that fill your body with the drumbeats and singer’s voices, up back stairs that lead onto the platform itself.

That first step from under the shaded arbor into the sunlight is always a powerful moment; you can see the rest of the procession dancing below, ringed by the crowd, the white tents of the vendors in the near distance, RVs and camping tents behind them, then finally the tree line and a sky that goes on for what appears to be forever. I always stop to give thanks for seeing another year, and ask for the strength to dance well before I take that first step onto the thick grass of the arena. Like Spartacus in the Colosseum, John Glenn on the launch pad—it’s a little scary, yeah, but I’m ready to rock and roll.

Dancers keep coming in, filling the arena in a tighter and tighter circle. Fringes, jingles, bells, rattles, feathers and feet conjure a spell of movement, while the drum groups, playing in rotation, seem to get louder and louder to stay above the cacophony. I don’t know what the audience sees, but being part of it, being inside this living, breathing thing, as we call on the ancestors to help us carry on this tradition, well, there really are no words to describe it. When everyone is finally in the circle and the drum stops, with every foot stopping on the final beat, in those seconds of silence that stretch out for an eternity, I feel the ancestors right there among us, inside all our hearts, singing with every drumming heartbeat, “We’re still here, we’re still dancing and we’re still alive!”

Shinnecock’s 66th pow-wow began Friday night and ended Monday evening, when the winners of the dance and drum contests were named. I did well this year.

Although my house is but a short distance from the pow-wow grounds, the walk always seems to take a little longer on that final night.

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