Newton turned a long-celebrated but increasingly controversial holiday into a new tradition on Monday with its first annual Indigenous Peoples Day Ceremonial Celebration, replacing Columbus Day and honoring the region’s Native inhabitants with drumming, dance, and ritual.
“It had to be done; it’s long overdue,” said Dean Stanton, 62, of Charlestown, R.I.
Stanton, of the Narragansett tribe, wearing a headdress made of hawk feathers, helped lead the event’s pipe ceremony, exhaling tobacco smoke in the four cardinal directions as a sacrament during the celebration’s kickoff at Albermarle Field.
“When we can stand up and come together and remind everyone that we still exist, it’s powerful and important,” Stanton said before the ceremony.
Native families, dancers, artists, and craftspeople turned out dressed in beadwork, buckskin, and eagle-feather regalia to burn sage, honor ancestors, and unite under a tribal banner.
Narragansett descendants of two-time Boston Marathon champ Ellison “Tarzan” Brown, winner in 1936 and 1939, led a dance circle around a grassy arena. When the dance floor was opened to all who wanted to honor an ancestor, Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller joined in, keeping step to the tribal drums and wails with the rest of the crowd.
Marathon organizers sought to make amends by honoring Brown’s legacy after they faced heavy criticism for scheduling the race on Indigenous Peoples Day, which was celebrated in Newton for the first time this year.
The second Monday in October remains Columbus Day in most of Massachusetts but has become a celebration of the country’s Native peoples in a growing number of communities statewide. In Boston, Acting Mayor Kim Janey announced last week that the city would observe the holiday going forward.
“It’s great to see the city of Newton and the mayor of Boston acknowledge Indigenous People’s Day,” said Brian Weeden, chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag’s Tribal Council on Cape Cod.
“It’s definitely cause for celebration,” Weeden said after participating in a men-only Calumet dance, typically performed at Wampanoag Nation gatherings, evoking the shape, sound, and smoke of a pipe used for prayers and offerings.
“We’re still waiting on the Massachusetts delegation to change it for the rest of the state,” Weeden said.
Jen Lohr, 45, brought her family from their home in upstate New York to participate in the event with Higuayagua Taino of the Caribbean, a non-profit organization that works on behalf of Taino people and their diaspora.
“I’m here to support my people and to support my ancestors,” Lohr said. “We’re here to support the local tribes and to stand in unity. To me, it’s important that I honor the culture for my ancestors, who fought really hard for me and my children to be here.”
Artist Nayana LaFond, of the Northampton area, exhibited her striking acrylic paintings: black, white, and gray-hued canvas portraits of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls imprinted with blood-red handprints.
With 62 portraits completed since May 5, 2020, and number 63 in the works, LaFond said it’s cathartic work, but it can be a nearly impossible volume of cases to keep up with.
“I’m trying to raise my voice as loud as I can,” LaFond said, expressing solidarity with the missing and murdered women and their families. “I brought this display today to raise awareness.”
“Each one is a real person with a real story.”
The crimson paint she uses is symbolic in Native lore, LaFond said.
“Red is the only color that spirits can see,” she said. “I paint them in black and white with red, so the spirits can see them.”