Shinnecock Powwow Returns to Southampton This Weekend

James Keith Phillips: Eastern War Dancer
James Keith Phillips – Eastern War Dancer, Photos: Nicholas Chowske (left & right), Pocahontas Cooley (center)

It’s the middle of the Eastern powwow season when all of the best Eastern War dancers come out of the woods to do what they’ve done for ages and ages before the colonials ever showed up—war dance like it’s 1699.

I have been smudging (fanning with the smoke of sage) a new Eastern style headdress made by my brother of the Narragansett nation. Ironically, or maybe not, I didn’t get to really wear it until the 339th(!) Narragansett August meeting this summer, and even then I had to overcome a physical hardship to prove I was worthy, not being able to dance until the second day. But all went well and the headdress is truly a strong-spirited part of my regalia.

No doubt many people are familiar with the modern version of powwow dancers with the feathers and the bustles and colorful outfits. The Eastern War category takes you back to the days of the Narragansett, Pequot, Wampanoag and Shinnecock men whose dancing shows their feats of battle and hunting adventures. There is no ornate regalia, other than perhaps a brightly colored ribbon shirt and lots of high stepping, axe, bow and club swinging excitement. At the recent Mohegan Wigwam Festival, a tour group of Russian ladies told my friend Dean (one of the best Eastern War dancers) and I that they loved watching this particular form of powwow war dance, because they felt it was “pure” and the men looked like they imagined they did in the old days before the white man came—their words, not mine.

The Narragansetts, Wampanoags and Pequots are among the best Eastern War dancers and well worth the price of any admission. They have not only kept the style going over the years, but have honed it into something that is as close to an art form as you can get; it is verisimilitude personified. I’m in the Golden Age (50 and up) category and therefore get to watch the younger warriors swoop and dive and turn so quickly with their weapons raised to strike that they resemble dragonflies crossed with falcons bred with swallows.

I tried to look at the young men in the arena as the Russian ladies did, as if they were those ancestral hunters and warriors, each having their own personality and way of moving. I saw the runners who went from one side of the arena to the other like arrows shot from bows; I recognized the big, strong tracker whose steps were steady and sure, never faltering, carrying a bow that would send an arrow after a deer or opponent unerringly; and the hunter, who tells a story from smudging at the camp to rowing the canoe to bringing back the quarry to the village; and, of course, the warrior who makes it all look so easy, his steps varying from slow to fast, his moccasins never really touching the ground, as he whirls and strikes and changes directions as easily as the wind blowing over the arena. All these dancers bring back the past in their steps and movements.

And the Golden Age category brings back the past as well. These dancers are the older warriors. Their steps may have slowed somewhat, but they are just as beautiful to see and their steps and movements exhibit the wisdom and grace that only the elders of the tribe can bring. The standard joke I tell is that when I’m dancing, my lungs feel like leather and my legs like wood—then I look over at Dean or the eminent Colonel Waters (USMC, Ret.) and they seem to be taking a leisurely walk. I should also mention that the Colonel is in his 80s!

The 68th annual Shinnecock Powwow is Labor Day weekend (August 29–September 1) on the Southampton reservation, just as it has been for the last 67 years. See you there!

More from Our Sister Sites