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Pow Wow Shows Native Peoples' History, Culture Through Song and Dance

Jul 11, 2016

In the summer of 1877 there was a battle in the mountains of Montana. The Nez Perce people fought the U.S. Army over two days. Dozens of women and children were killed, along with U.S. and Nez Perce fighters. 

To remember that day, the Nez Perce created a song and dance called the Duck and Dive. At one point in the song, drummers beat twice loudly on the drum. This is the cannon fire. Dancers are supposed to duck, as if responding to the boom. 

In most Connecticut classrooms, history is taught through a book. But in many Native American cultures, these lessons also are passed down through song and dance. 

"Getting into that circle is healing," said Devon Watson, 17, of the Wampanoag people. "When you step into that circle, you're dancing for every single ancestor that's come before you."  

"Everything for us is more than folklore -- it's oral history," he said. "Oral tradition."  

Devon Wickson dances.
Credit WNPR/David DesRoches

Devon was one of about 30 performers from 16 different tribes who danced at a pow wow at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center. A pow wow is social gathering, involving food, song and dance.

This particular pow wow was billed as chance for people to learn about native dances and what they mean, said Christopher Newell, the museum's education manager. 

"Being native in this modern day world, we kind of have to walk in two worlds," Newell said. "We have to have jobs, we've gotta make money and make livings and have a place to live. But our culture is who we are. That's a blueprint of where we came from. So passing these traditions down from the older generations to the younger ones, really keeps that sense of identity alive." 

The clothes also tell a story. For the grass dance, clothes are covered in dangling yarn or threads, to symbolize the grass. Dancer Devon Wickson wears deerskin chaps and moccasins, and holds a fan made of osprey feathers.

"I have eagle on my club," he said. "I have glass wampum and real wampum. Wampum is very spiritually significant to us. Purple is the color for purity, so we weave those to tell our stories, tell where we're from."

Many aspects of native culture have been lost, partly because colonists outlawed these practices. But there's been a resurgence over the last 30 years, and pow wows are helping pass along the nearly forgotten stories of America's first people.

 

Drummers keep the beat during a powwow at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum.
Credit WNPR/David DesRoches