For the past 66 years, the people of the Shinnecock Nation in Southampton have welcomed all Long Islanders to join them, and dozens of other tribes from North and South America, as they gather to dance to the beat of the drum, and celebrate their heritage at the annual Shinnecock Powwow.
“It’s back to being one of the biggest on the East Coast,” said James Phillips, who’s specialty is the Eastern War dance. The three-day event occurs every Labor Day weekend, and has been rated by USA Today one of America’s 10 greatest powwows. “It started as a pageant for the women,” Phillips said. “Then in World War II, they got together and decided to raise some money for the church. It used to be just a social event, and then it turned into more contests and stuff.”
This year’s event featured more than 100 vendors from around the country who offered traditional and local foods, including soft-shell crab, buffalo, venison and snapping turtle, as well as a myriad of jewelry, arts and crafts, and pony rides for the children. The main focus, however, was on the dance and drum competitions. “I love the powwows,” said Breanna Fleming, a member of the Shinnecock Tribe. “Every year you just gotta get out there, get energized, and have fun.”
Hundreds of people gathered around the massive stage to watch dancers of all ages, from dozens tribes show off their skills to the pounding of the drums.
“I’ve been dancing since I was about five years old,” Phillips said. “It takes away the aches and pains, and it takes you away from the corporate world.” Phillips, who just recently won the Dan’s Papers Literary Prize for Non-Fiction, for his story “Magic Shirts,” as well as a number of traditional dance competitions, has been dancing his way to powwows all along the East Coast. “I love to dance. I don’t even think about the contests anymore,” he said. “I was a professional dancer for a while, so my friends call me a ringer.”
Throughout the powwow, dancers compete in various styles of dance, including traditional, war, grass, and fancy for men, and traditional, blanket, shawl, and jingle for women. Jingle dancers wear elaborate skirts adorned with bells. Dancers are judged, not only on their ability to perform their dance, but also on the accuracy of their outfits. The drummers and singers who keep the beat all weekend are being judged on their performance as well.
This was Fleming’s first year competing in the Eastern Blanket Dance. “Every other year I’ve done the fancy, but this is a fun dance,” she said. The Eastern Blanket Dance is a courtship dance traditionally performed by young, unmarried women. “As you dance, you tell a story, and it was one of the first dances for women.”
The powwow, which means gathering, attracts people from around the nation to dance, compete, celebrate and socialize. Dean Stanton, a member of the Narragansett Tribe who’s American Indian name is Crawling Wolf, traveled here from Rhode Island. “I’ve been dancing here for 30 years,” he said. “I like it for the cultural and traditional activities.” Chaske LaBlanc came from Lower Sioux, Minnesota, to compete in the Men’s Eastern War Dance. “I’ve been dancing ever since I was little, and I’ve been coming here for years,” he said.
For Phillips, the Shinnecock Powwow is about more than dancing, though. “This is a homecoming for me,” he said. “I get to see all of my relatives and all my friends from the powwow trail. I’m in another world here.”