Dan Rattiner's Stories

Escape to New York: A Weekend Like No Other

Here’s what happened on the Pow-Wow Grounds of the Shinnecock Indian Reservation in Southampton last weekend.

On Thursday, the crews descended on the place, and with the approval of the tribe set up a wide variety of booths, fair tents and stages that had nothing to do with Indian traditions. Instead, these structures celebrated the hippie era or, perhaps more precisely, the Alice in Wonderland era. The structures set up included a boxing ring, a public speaking arena, a bar in the woods, a dance tent, a giant wooden climbing thing, an area for makeup and massage, a stage with a wrecked taxicab on it that looked like something from E.T., a panda pit, a tent filled with rose petals, a picnic area, a dance field, a field just for spreading out blankets and listening to the music, something called Brooklyn Aerodrome, something called the Kendalle Fiasco, an acoustic stage, a series of merchants’ tents where beginning the next day you could buy beads, jellies, popovers, eggrolls, clothes and oils, a series of art galleries, an information booth, a security and first aid center, a bar for tropical drinks, showers and all sorts of strange lighting for after sunset, including lights in the woods in the grass which lit up the underside of the trees so when you strolled through it you might think you were on another planet.

That about one quarter of the grounds were set up for the Shinnecocks to sell their tribal wares—drums, spears, clothes, jewelry, artifacts, etc.—seemed perfectly in keeping with what was about to take place. [expand]

Friday came. The crowds began to arrive after the gates opened at 11 a.m.—walking through a mist of artificial fog wafting across the entry gate and then soap bubble machines adding to the delightful confusion a little farther in—and the smiles began to appear on everyone’s faces. By 2 in the afternoon the number of people there probably passed 500—not filling the place much since the grounds are about the size of the baseball field at Yankee Stadium—but then it was a start. There was no particular way to dress for all of this, of course, but people seemed to be leaning into one sort of theme or another. There were people in hippie garb, others in cowboy garb (cowboys and Indians?), others in shorts and t-shirts; there were women dressed to kill, men in white pants and sweaters. By 5 p.m., there were 1,000 people. By sunset about 4,000. But still it did not appear crowded. It never appeared crowded. But boy did it rock, as the place turned into a great celebration of whatever the hell this was. On the great stage with the busted up taxicab, Chairlift played from 6:15 to 6:55, Best Coast played from 7:15 to 8:15 and Patti Smith played between 9:20 and 10:20. Similar schedules were held to on other stages. The crowds, tired and happy, went home at 11 p.m. when the day’s events ended. Tomorrow would be another day.

Saturday was pretty much a repeat of Friday, but with bigger crowds. People were arriving from the city in cars and busses, others were brought over from the high-end tent camp set up at the Elks Lodge Grounds on County Road 39, others just drove over from their homes. And by late Saturday evening, with an estimated 9,000 people on the grounds, this place was rocking. At that hour—and you could wander from one location to another—here’s what was going on. Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros were playing on the main stage, Xaphoon Jones of Chiddy Bang was in the main dance tent, The Jackson Rider was at Jack’s Stir Brew Acoustic Stage, DJ Pierre was playing under the trees in the Woodlands Dance-Off Area and one or another of the speakers, Olivia Koski, was lecturing on How to Destroy Things With Light. In the Shinnecock Area, the smells of venison, blue fish and Indian tacos filled the air.

Now all you local folk watching TV at home or hanging out at the local bars who wondered what the traffic situation was like for all this, I can tell you it was smooth sailing into and out of the grounds with no great tie-ups at all more than normal on the highways, according to the police. Furthermore, as it all ended at 11 p.m., there were no incidents at all on the roads going home, or at least no more than usual.

As for all those well-to-do summer people who got all dressed up and went to one or another of the big fundraisers taking place that Saturday night—with the silent auctions, the dinners, the speeches and the buffets—I can tell you, well, you missed something. Not my cup of tea you might say, but then, well, remember your youth. This was the sort of stuff that magic is made of.

Sunday morning it was raining cats and dogs. Although things were to clear up in the afternoon, the grounds were experiencing flood conditions and the tribe requested that the promoters call off the festival for Sunday, and they did.

According to Pam Workman, one of the spokespeople for Escape to New York, the organizers had already decided this was a huge success and would be back next year, and if that’s what the tribe wanted, they would honor the request. They declared the event over just before the gates were to open at 11 a.m. The people who bought tickets would have their money refunded. Those who had three-day passes would be offered options that would be equal to the loss of the third day.

Who else needs to decide if they come back? The Town of Southampton? No. It’s the Shinnecocks. The thing is this:

Seven years ago, PETA, that group that harasses anything going on that in their opinion that looks like cruelty to animals, began to picket the Clyde Beatty Cole Brothers Circus over at the Southampton Elks Lodge Grounds on County Road 39, which had been coming for two days every summer for generations. After continuing pressure, the town passed a rule requiring the circus to agree not to come with wild animals or elephants for the kids to ride. They did that. There were dog acts. It wasn’t the same. And they did that a year later too.

In the fall after that second year, I called up the Shinnecock Tribe people and spoke to Lance Gumbs there and said you know what? Why not have the circus THERE, on the reservation? The tribe, as set up by the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs 150 years ago, has its own rules on the reservation.

“You could have elephants,” I told Gumbs. “And the circus would pay to have it on the grounds.”

And so they did, the circus, complete with the big cats and the elephants—who seem to love what they do—took place on the Pow- Wow Grounds that year and every year since then—and PETA can’t get at them. And that’s the way it is.

Congratulations to Freddie Fellows, the Englishman with the grand estate who 10 years ago established the let-it-all-hang-out model of hippie and Alice in Wonderland Weekends that have since become a staple in that country. Now this event has come to America.

I, for one, salute it. I wave my hat in the air at it. Wait ‘til next year.

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