Shinnecock Indian Powwow 2015: Duct Tape Moccasins and the Green Dress

Shinnecock Powwow Kids
Shinnecock Powwow Kids, Photo: Nicholas Chowske

It’s nearing the end of the Eastern Woodland powwow season and it’s been either hot, dry, dusty, or hot, humid and dusty. Either way there’s nowhere else some dancers would rather be. There are Shinnecock dancers who have been kicking it on the powwow trail since March and early April and these are the ones to watch for if you come to the Labor Day Shinnecock powwow. You can’t help but notice them; their moves will be smooth and tight, swirling, swooping, and spinning seemingly effortless, while their feet keep step with the drumming and singing. Sometimes it seems as though their moccasins are floating above the grass—only touching down now and then to make sure it’s still there. Fans, scarves dance sticks, and weapons are raised and trick moves are made on the ‘honor beat’, and when the song ends dancers will stop dead on a dime with the last drum beat, as precise as the Marines Silent Drill Team.

If they’re Women Eastern Blanket Dancers, they’ll be stepping as graceful as leaves floating through the woods on the wind as they weave a story of life, courtship and family with their blankets. They make it look easy, but to move a piece of material around you, keeping step with the drumbeat and making it look graceful and dignified takes considerable skill. Salome’s veil dance is sheets flapping on a clothesline next to some these women’s moves.

Having watched our young Shinnecock dancers out on the trail this season it’s inspiring to see them get better, stronger and more confident at each gathering. If you ask some why they dance, there may be as many answers as people you ask, but one thing they all hold in common is the love of the powwow energy and the dance. A niece told her mother that she “dances for the people that can’t dance”. It must be those people’s spirits that inhabit her body as she burns through every fancy shawl dance

At the Wampanoag powwow, more than 20 young Eastern warriors took part in a memorial dance. The frenetic energy was literally breathtaking. A woman standing next to myself and the great Narragansett war dancer Dean Stanton remarked that it made her feel she was transported in time to three hundred years ago.

If you look closely, you’ll see some dancers have patched up their moccasins with duct tape. The joke is if you look across the arena before your contest dance and you see duct tape on someone’s mocs, you’re in for a bumpy ride. They’ve been jamming that leather into the ground until it wore a ‘hole in the sole’, aka a ‘blowout’. Around this time of the year, there may be more tape than leather on some mocs.

Dancer in the Green Dress

Elizabeth "Chee Chee" Thunderbird Haile in the 1956 poster for the Shinnecock Indian Nation Pow Wow
Elizabeth “Chee Chee” Thunderbird Haile in the 1956 poster for the Shinnecock Indian Nation Pow Wow

One of our most memorable and famous dancers Elizabeth Haile, known as “Princess Chee Chee” walked on recently. She was always a gracious lady. The photograph above is that of a beautiful Native woman in her prime performing the Eagle Dance. If you had the honor of seeing her dance to the spoken Native translation of the Lord’s Prayer, you certainly can’t forget its power and beauty. It entranced crowds of people every year. She once wore a beautiful forest green deerskin dress with fringes that danced around her as she danced and although she wore many a beautiful fringed dress over the years, I’ll always remember the green one. Her legacy will be continued by a number of Shinnecock Women she taught the dance and who will perform it this year. So yes, she’ll be there this powwow and the next, she made sure of that.

The photograph shows her in mid-step above the floor, eagle feathers spread along her arms, a confluence of movement, grace and beauty. One foot poised high the other pointed at the floor, hovering. Just letting it, and us know she’s still there. Dance on Chee Chee, always.

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