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Eastern Shore powwow brings culture to life
Cypress Park in Pocomoke City is an ideal spot for the Assateague powwow, held this year — and each year — on a May weekend. Centuries ago, the tribe lived and hunted in the area. Tribal members, usually with a grin, like to call themselves “the first residents of Ocean City,” the resort nearby where Indians gathered clams and oysters long before it became a popular vacation spot.
It’s that past the Assateagues evoke so powerfully during the two days they spend together powwowing.
“We remember the past not just for itself but for what it means for today and for our children,” says Mrs. Baldwin, whose tribal name is Singing Fire Wolf. A powwow can be a guide, she says, “for those who want to follow the red road” — that is, Indian or “red man” traditions.
It’s no surprise that the Assateague call this powwow “Drums on the Pocomoke.” The drumming is likely to be the first thing visitors hear that signals something unusual is taking place, something different from the standard county fair.
The drumming — this year done by Iroquois Thunder Heart, a group from Pennsylvania — and the chanting that goes along with it transport participants into another world and time, and that is the intention, tribal elders say.
The drumming is held in such high esteem that one of the prayers that opens the event gives thanks for the drummers and the sounds they make. Thunder Heart, whose style its members say comes from “Eastern woodlands” traditions of tribes like the Iroquois, is made up of six men and four women.
The sexes drum separately — the men for some dances, the women for others — on drumheads of rawhide stretched tightly over frames of various sizes. They learn their craft by a long apprenticeship with a drumming group that meets regularly for practice, like any professional musician’s group.
Thunder Heart plays for any East Coast powwow, and for some in the Midwest. They offer their services free, asking only for donations to defray travel costs.
The grand gathering
The grand entry is any powwow’s single most impressive moment, and at noon sharp, to the sounds of drums and chanting, Chief Medicine Cat and the tribal elders, along with dancers and other participants, enter the sacred circle of the arena and file in, in rows of two and three, around the sacred fire.
Master of ceremonies Makwa, an Iroquois from Bloomsburg, Pa., who wants to be known only by his professional name, asks that photographers take no pictures. The grand entry is regarded as sacred.
Makwa is an old hand at emceeing powwows. Not only has he presided over the Assateague Peoples Pow-Wow for many years with gentle humor and a deep knowledge of the meaning of the dances, he also presides over many other East Coast powwows.
Before the entry, the elders and others had each stood before the smoke of burning pine needles to cleanse and prepare themselves for this sacred time.
Medicine Cat holds an impressive feathered staff topped by an eagle’s head. Following him, Indians who are military veterans carry flags, including Old Glory, the flags of Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, the black-and-white POW flag and a flag commemorating the victims and heroes of the September 11 attack.
But the opening of the powwow is a multifaceted event, “a time for joyful celebration,” in the words of tribal historian Fox. An Indian woman sings a rendition of “Amazing Grace” in Cherokee. Even before the grand entry, Dancing Two Bears Smith, a Shawnee designated this year’s lead male dancer at the powwow, had danced around the sacred fire, the first dance of the powwow.
By Emily Miller
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