Rhythm of the Weekend: Pow Wow at Poker Flats

The first annual Williams College Pow Wow was held October 17-18, on the field behind Poker Flats. Native Americans from Canada, the U.S., and even as far away as Ecuador attended the Pow Wow which lasted two days and one night. They spent the night on the field in tents, teepees, and motor homes.

The event migrated to Towne Field House Saturday night for an indoor Pow Wow, then to Rice house on Sunday for a post-Pow Wow party that included non-traditional tunes and dancing.

Elizabeth Hoover ’01, known as Wind Chaser and descendant of the Mohawk and Micmac tribes, organized the event over the summer by spreading the word at local Pow Wows, planning the activities, and seeking sponsors.

“I think the Pow Wow went fairly well,” Hoover said. “It was not exactly the type of Pow Wow you’d see at Dartmouth or U. Mass Amherst but we’re working our way up to that.” She said she had been “hoping for a slightly larger attendance.”

Indigenous Voices of the Western Hemisphere, the Multicultural Center (MCC), VISTA, the Dean’s Office, the Committee on Undergraduate Life, the Theater Department, the Dance Department, the Art Department, the Health Center, and the Committee on Diversity and Community sponsored the event through donations totaling $3,000.

Hoover recognized Marcela Peacock of the MCC as a “huge help” as an event organizer. Students from the new Native American club on campus also contributed.

Myriad Pow Wow activities satisfied every visitor’s entertainment needs from active participation in tomahawk throwing, dancing, and drum-beating to purchasing crafts to merely observing and listening to stories. “It was kind of a culture shock,” Abbey Eisenhower’01 said.

Tomahawk throwing proved popular among many Williams students, while others enjoyed participating in the intertribal dances – in which dancers do not have to be affiliated with a specific tribe in order to participate.

A lucky few took a moment to beat the dance rhythm as an “adopted” family member of Hoover on the Strong Turtle Drum – one of three drums just outside a ceremonial fire circle. The participants’ enthusiasm for sharing their heritage made it easy for an outside visitor to learn a lot about the culture while being thoroughly entertained.

Buying crafts was the most popular activity for Williams students. They spent most of their time admiring the hand-made sculptures, bows and arrows, wool rugs, cornhusk dolls, ornaments and buffalo bone drums. This activity proved to be just as informative as any other endeavor, as vendors shared the history and meaning behind their wares.

They explained that the mendala ornaments serve to protect the house, while the calendars display the moon and aura of one’s birth month. The medicine wheel radiates a specified healing force above the bed of the sick. Dream catchers take on the same round shape as the medicine wheel, but capture bad dreams while letting good ones through.

“I am still learning my heritage, too,” one vendor noted as she read through a document on the meaning behind the different moon images.

Gray Wolf explained that the reason for not wearing a real eagle feather atop his head was because if he dropped it they would have to have a ceremony to pick it up and bless it with another eagle feather that usually only the medicine man had. The beaded images on his breechcloth weren’t merely for decoration; each animal and color was representative of his tribe. His dancing stick was an explosion of objects, inscriptions and colors, each representing something significant. The deer toes around his ankles rattled when he danced and the pouch around his neck held tobacco, which is offered to the creator in a special ritual.

Spirit Crow shared a smudge – the smoke from burning sage, cedar, and sweet grass that sends thanks to the creator and purifies the soul – while beading a bracelet out of red and white beads, the colors that signify war.

Man that Throws Tomahawk said some tomahawks contain crosses of the Natives while those of the Christians contain hearts so one can tell whether a Native had been in contact with a Christian. “Whether they traded for it or fought for it was another question,” he said with a grin.

Along with their goods, some vendors shared some somber sentiments in response to the current tribal situation. “We’ve lost our focus,” one said, referring to the prevailing status of Native Americans in the US.

“It’s not about being federally recognized,” which she said has become the goal of too many Native Americans. Rather, she felt it was about “keying into the beingness of people” by surpassing the tendency to judge and discriminate and by respecting the wonderful qualities all people possess as individuals.

The vendor admitted to being discriminated against among Natives due to the light quality of her skin, which the Cherokee tribe acquired when they mixed with the white Norse from Canada. Others from the Wampanoag tribe are much darker, she claimed, because the tribe mixed with blacks along the southern coast of the US.

Most visitors to the Pow Wow knew little about the culture at the outset, making their attendance all the more important. Those who missed such an accessible and highly rewarding opportunity this year will hopefully have another chance next fall.

“We are definitely having another Pow Wow in the future,” Hoover said. “I have a feeling it will be much easier next year, if B&G doesn’t banish me for all of the ruts on Poker Flats.”