Powwow helps to preserve Native American culture

B y Derek Liebig

Native Americans from New York, Vermont and beyond celebrated their heritage during the eighth annual First Nations Intertribal Powwow held Saturday and Sunday at Skenesborough Canal Side Park.

Dozens of Native Americans demonstrated their cultural mores through dance, song, stories and crafts, educating those in attendance and helping preserve their heritage.

“This is a celebration of our culture,” said Beth Hayes, one of the event’s organizers and a vendor. “People see the word powwow and they don’t always understand what it is. Everything—the singing, the drums, the dancing, the storytelling—it helps keep our culture alive.”

A circle of tents and trailers dotted the perimeter of the park. Inside, vendors sold wooden flutes, hand-woven moccasins, traditional clothing, animal pelts, brightly colored shawls and hand-carved walking sticks.

Dave Ogsbury explained and showed off a variety of tomahawks and many of his fellow vendors detailed and even demonstrated how they make their items.

Joseph Bruchac, an acclaimed Native American author, told stories, mixing in traditional Abenaki language with flute playing.

In the center of the park, inside a ring, formed by ropes and wooden posts, dancers dressed in both traditional and modern garb, moved to the rhythmic pulse of drums, stamping their feet and waving handfuls of eagle feathers. Gary Hayes, master of ceremonies, explained to the crowd the significance of each dance and why each is sacred.

“The big thing is education. We’re trying to educate people about Native American culture,” said Hayes.

Unlike some powwows, which may be specific to a certain tribal group, last weekend’s powwow was open to all Native American groups.

There were Sac and Fox, tomahawks used by the Plains Indians, and even Mayan crafts. But Eastern Woodland groups, like the Abenaki, were represented most prominently.

The Abenaki, an Algonquian speaking people, have traditionally lived throughout New England and Quebec.

Many anthropologists have classified the Abenaki as two groups: Eastern and Western. Within these groups are a number of bands, including the Missiquoi, who lived in the Missiquoi Valley near Lake Champlain in north-west Vermont. Their principal village is based around Swanton, Vt., home of the Abenaki Circle of Courage Youth Group, which has participated in the Whitehall powwow for years.

The group, which is funded through the Title VII Indian Education Act, is comprised of children in kindergarten through 12th grade.

The group meets three times a week, six months of the year and “teaches kids native dancing, drumming, beadwork, and leatherwork,” said Brenda Gagne, who has been coordinator of the group for 20 years.

The kids, 80 percent of whom are of Abenaki descent, perform at different events through Vermont. They have danced at the ECHO Aquarium in Burlington and Champlain Maritine Museum this summer, but last weekend was the only powwow they’ve participated in.

Gagne echoed Hayes’ statement, explaining events, like the powwow help preserve their culture.

“We’re trying to keep our heritage alive. Our culture has a lot of oral histories and this is a way we can pass that down to next generation,” Gagne said. “We want these kids to be proud of who they are.”

 

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