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Wampanoag tribe gathers for Thanksgiving

Mashpee Wampanoag tribe members sprinkled tobacco over a fire at a Thanksgiving celebration.

Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff

Mashpee Wampanoag tribe members sprinkled tobacco over a fire at a Thanksgiving celebration.

MASHPEE — People crowded long tables under a white tent while others sat on aging wooden pews inside the church holding their plates and enjoying the early Thanksgiving feast.

The menu — venison, rabbit, chowder, clams, and corncakes — was different from the traditional Thanksgiving meal.

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But, then, that was the point.

With traditional drums and chanting serving as a soundtrack, members of the Wampanoag tribe gathered at midday Saturday for their own fourth annual Thanksgiving celebration.

“Our people have always taken time to give thanks,” said Darrel Wixon, who led the nine-member drum circle. “This was originally our holiday.”

The feast was held at Mashpee’s Old Meeting House, a white church constructed in 1684 by European missionaries who ministered to the Wampanoag and is the oldest church on Cape Cod.

Tribe members sang traditional songs and danced during the feast, which began at 11 a.m. and lasted four hours.

‘Our history, our ancestry, is all right here.’

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As the steady beat of the drums thumped in the background, nearly 200 tribe members and guests ate locally grown, organic vegetables and meat from animals that tribe members had hunted, as well as shellfish and clams they caught off the coast of the Cape.

The tribe, native to Mashpee, has 2,600 members.

“We’ve been here for generations,” said Bernadette Potnick, an elder member of the tribe, as she pointed to a headstone from the late 1700s in the cemetery that surrounds the church. That grave, she said, belonged to one of the tribe’s early members, many of whom worked on whaling boats off of the Cape after the arrival of the Europeans.

“Our history, our ancestry, is all right here,” she said.

Several women sold brightly colored jewelry crafted from beads and stones and inspired by the styles of their ancestors.

“It all comes from my head,” said Wasutu Nopi, one of the jewelers, of the dozens of homemade necklaces she designed and displayed on the table in front of her. “The skill is all natural.”

Other tables displayed Christmas ornaments and shoes, along with necklaces and rings — all handmade in the Wampanoag style.

“We like to show the younger ones that it’s possible to make something beautiful without having to go to the craft store, with just the materials you can find naturally,” said Jeanne Peters, who married into the tribe and has been making jewelry for 15 years.

The tribe, which earned federal recognition in 2007, focuses on teaching its children about the customs and traditions they have held for hundreds of years.

“It’s a great way to keep these kids off of the streets, give them some positive energy, and to teach them about our culture,” said Vanessa Tobey, a tribe member who was running a raffle to raise money for the tribe’s youth archery team.

The Wampanoag begin teaching young men archery at early age, as well as drumming and chanting.

“I’ve been doing this all my life,” said Wixon, during one of the drum circles breaks during the event. “I started when I was 10, and now I’m 53.”

The songs varied in style and pace, and had different messages. Some were songs of celebration, others of thanksgiving, Wixon said. The songs were wordless, instead comprising clicks, shouts, grunts, and other sounds made by the group members, who took turns leading the drumming.

Wixon said the songs serve as group prayers to the spirits.

The day’s final song, enthusiastic and fast-paced, was a request for safe travels — traditionally sung at the end of a large group gathering.

“They all have meaning,” Wixon said with a smile.

Wesley Lowery can be reached at Wesley.Lowery@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @WesleyLowery.
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