If you’re thinking about your plans for Labor Day weekend, and they don’t include spending at least one day at the 67th Shinnecock Powwow, you might want to think again.
“Powwow means meeting of the Indians, and it’s something we do every year,” said James K. Phillips, a member of the Shinnecock Nation who specializes in the Eastern War dance.
“Before the powwows, there were the pageants where they would reenact the meeting of the settlers and the Indians.”
The main event at the powwow is the dance and drum competition, where more than $50,000 in prizes is up for grabs in 27 different events. “Every powwow’s the same and every powwow’s different. Some of them are commercial, some of them are cultural,” Phillips said. “Commercial means they just do the dances and put on a show, and then there’s ours, which is a combination of the two. It used to be a show, and then the culture started coming in, where we formed these alliances with other tribes, and they bring their influence—Western, Southeastern, Eastern—in what’s called Pan-Indianism,” he said. “You’ll find me doing Eastern War, which is a traditional dance.”
In addition to the dance and drum competitions, the powwow will feature more than 100 vendors of native crafts and food. “At a powwow, you’ll find native foods, you’ll find different styles of dance, and you’ll find Natives from all over the country. We have special performances by Arvel Bird, who plays the fiddle and dances,” Phillips said. “Let’s face it, it runs the gamut from hokey to authentic handmade things.”
Powwow season runs from March to December, and the events happen all across the country. “Powwows are all year long, but the main season starts in March, with the Denver March Powwow,” he said. “The East Coast powwows start with Narragansett, and they have their 338th this year, which they call their August Meeting; also Mashpee, Mohegan, Pequot and Shinnecock.” The Shinnecock Powwow is the largest on the East Coast, and has been rated by USA Today as one of America’s 10 greatest powwows. “It used to be the biggest powwow on the East Coast, before Skamitsen, and then there was Mohegan, and they had a lot of money and they outdid ours, but then they had bad times and now ours is the biggest,” Phillips said. “Some people have been coming for all 67 years—there’s people who are 90 something years old coming to our powwow.”
The powwow is more than just food, crafts and dancing—it’s also a chance for American Indians from across the country to come together. “I always see my Narragansett friends—you start to meet people and you see them every year and it’s like a big family,” Phillips said. “The first time I went to Skamitsen, and I looked up in the stands and it was nothing but Indians, and there was nothing but Indians dancing, I realized that there’s more than just us. There’s more than one tribe and it takes you back—you become friends with these people because you’re sharing this thing.” The 67th Shinnecock Powwow runs from Friday, August 30 through Monday, September 2, rain or shine, at the Shinnecock Indian Reservation in Southampton.
“We’re just like the Hamptons—we like to have our parties with the boom-boom music going,” Phillips said. “It’s like New Years and Christmas and birthdays—it’s one big thing we do to celebrate being here this long.”
For more information, visit shinnecocknation.org, or call 631-283-6143.