Powwow celebrates Native American Heritage Month

A Grass Dancer performs at a spring 2009 powwow in Marshfield.
Mass. Center for Native American Awareness
A Grass Dancer performs at a spring 2009 powwow in Marshfield.

With a day of drumming, dancing, and storytelling, Native American cultural groups from Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and as far away as Canada’s Prince Edward Island will celebrate National Native American Heritage Month on Sunday  at Bridgewater State University.  

The public is welcome at the 22d annual Native American Heritage Day Pow-Wow, which runs from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. in the John J. Kelly Gymnasium.  

“What I like best is it’s a family-oriented event,” said Anthony Silva of the Massachusetts Center for Native American Awareness, which organizes the powwow with cosponsorship from the university. “People who come get really sort of immersed in native culture, both contemporary and native culture from the past.”


The day features a full roster of performances, craft-making, vendors, and native and non-native foods. Attendees will be invited to join in intertribal dancing, and educator Claudia Fox Tree will offer a workshop for adults and teens that promotes cultural awareness and understanding of Native Americans.  

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Performers include the Wampanoag Nation Singers and Dancers, who perform eastern songs and social dances in an interactive show. Silva said some Native American drum and dance groups have adopted western-style instruments and dances, but the Wampanoag group retains the clothing and handheld instruments representative of eastern woodland people, giving the audience a chance to see dances indigenous to New England.  

Other groups scheduled to appear include the Eastern Medicine Singers of Rhode Island,  the Eastern Sun Singers of Cape Cod,  the Iron River Singers of southeastern Massachusetts,  and the Lone Cry Singers of Prince Edward Island.  

Wampanoag artist Kerri Helme of New Bedford will demonstrate pottery-making, and author Larry Spotted Crow Mann will be on hand for a book signing. In the craft area, children and their families can make cornhusk dolls for a $2 materials fee and hear storytelling throughout the day.

For Fox Tree’s workshop, she plans to pass out cards with words on them to spark conversation. Some of the words are indigenous names or objects the group will learn about, while others are terms and phrases in American English that describe native culture incorrectly — such as “costume,” an outfit that disguises the wearer as someone else, as opposed to better terms for native dress, such as “traditional dress,” “ceremonial dress,” or “regalia,” she said.


“I call it a conversation,” she said. “I want to make people comfortable.”

Fox Tree, who also teaches middle school special education, said she enjoys having teachers at her workshops, because she wants them to be able to give their students accurate information about indigenous people. “I want to be able to educate folks and give them the resources to tell an accurate story, to tell an authentic story,” she said.

Mass. Center for Native American Awareness
Haylie Maddix was a Girls Jingle Dress Dancerat the 2009 Spring Planting Moon powwow in Marshfield.

Foods expected to be on sale at the powwow include a type of fried dough called “fry bread,” powwow tacos, rice and beans, turkey and cranberry wraps, buffalo stew, hot dogs, chili dogs, and pumpkin pie.

Vendors will sell jewelry, moccasins, furs, stones, cedar boxes, bamboo musical instruments, textiles, beadwork, blankets, books, and craft supplies.

Since the Massachusetts Center for Native American Awareness was incorporated in 1989, cofounder and president Burne Stanley-Peters said awareness of native culture has improved among the general population.


“They realize the rich cultural heritage that we have, and that we encourage them to share in it,” she said.

In addition to its cultural programs, the center sponsors a scholarship fund for Native American youth and provides assistance with food, shelter, and heating bills for needy native families.

Events celebrating Native American heritage around the nation are listed on a federal website hosted by the Library of Congress,  Highlights include “Circle of Dance,” a five-year exhibit on indigenous dance of the Americas; it began last month at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York.  

According to the site, efforts to establish a day of recognition for native heritage date back to the turn of the 20th century.

In 1990, President George H.W. Bush approved a joint resolution naming November of that year as National American Indian Heritage Month, and similar proclamations under various names have been issued every year since 1994.  

This year, President Barack Obama issued a proclamation Nov. 1 declaring November 2012 to be National Native American Heritage Month. “Today, Native Americans are leaders in every aspect of our society — from the classroom, to the boardroom, to the battlefield,” it said. “This month, we celebrate and honor the many ways American Indians and Alaska Natives have enriched our Nation, and we renew our commitment to respecting each tribe’s identity while ensuring equal opportunity to pursue the American dream.”

For the local powwow on Sunday, admission is $5 for adults and $3 for children ages 4 to 16. Admission is free for children under age 4 and students and faculty of Bridgewater State University. Free parking is available at the Chapel Lot near the gym.

Jennette Barnes can be reached at