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Eastern Shore powwow brings culture to life

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POCOMOKE CITY, Md. -- Larry Smack — Chief Medi- cine Cat— looks pleased, maybe just a bit anxious. The weatherman has called for a 20 percent chance of rain, but right now it's a beautiful spring morning on Maryland's Eastern Shore, and the 14th Annual Pow-Wow of the Assateague Peoples of Delaware, Maryland and Virginia is about to begin.

Medicine Cat, a slim and wiry 67, has been chief for 15 years, but the powwow has been a dream of his for much longer, ever since he was a young man hungry to learn more about his Indian heritage and eager to celebrate it.

Among the native peoples of North America, the gathering known as the powwow is a potent instrument of communal spirit.

Spelled variously in English, the word was taken from the Narragansett people of New England in the 17th century and meant at that time both "shaman," or seer, and a tribal celebration at which sacred rites were performed. By the early 19th century its meaning had come to include a tribal conference or social gathering.

No other event offers so colorful a blend of Indian traditions, from song and dance to storytelling and art.

And no other event provides a better way to fulfill two needs: "to show non-Indians what Native Americans are all about," says Medicine Cat, and at the same time "create strong feelings of community among Indians."

Now, thanks to Medicine Cat and many others such as Clan Mother Diane Baldwin and tribal historian Gail Fox, the powwow of the Assateague Peoples is a reality.

One from many

The Assateague Peoples are just that — a tribe made up of various peoples. The original Assateagues were decimated by disease and war after the European arrival on the Eastern Shore in the 17th century.

Those Assateagues who survived were assimilated into white culture through marriage. Today's tribe is comprised of their descendants, as well as the descendants of other tribes.

"We're a Heinz 57 Varieties group," says Mrs. Fox, whose tribal name is Midnight Star. She is descended from Wyandots, a tribe related to the Hurons of Canada. Mrs. Baldwin is a Cherokee, a tribe originally from North Carolina and Tennessee.

And Chief Medicine Cat is only part Assateague.

"I'm also part Cherokee, part other tribes, part Dutch," he says.

What unites the many different peoples that make up the 45 members of the tribe, its elders say, is their strong desire to celebrate their Indian heritage, make it a central part of their lives, and hand it over to their children.

Pocomoke drums

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.

Many other dances follow the grand entry. For newcomers, information is available at the Assateague Peoples table, which also offers for sale "The Cookbook of the Assateague Peoples," a medley of Indian and non-Indian Eastern Shore recipes.

Surrounding the arena, some 20 booths sell food and Indian arts and crafts and offer visitors other ways to experience Native American culture.

There are burgers made from that iconic Indian meat, the American bison. There are oyster fritters and clam strips made from the shellfish that formed a major part of the Assateague diet centuries ago.

Arts and crafts vendors come from all over, some from great distances. Jose Perujachi, a Quechua-speaking South American Indian, grew up in the Andes mountains of Ecuador. He now lives in New York, he says, but sets up his stand at New England powwows, offering South American Indian works and artifacts from other tribes. This is his first time on the Eastern Shore.

Anna Laws, a Shoshone from North Carolina, has a colorful booth displaying a variety of fabrics and leather goods she's made, as well as objects carved by her husband, Daniel.

Mrs. Laws says she started out as a young woman doing only traditional Shoshone crafts, but felt restricted, so she branched out, making use of other Indians' traditions, which made possible a wider variety of colors and designs. She and her husband each year set up shop at the Assateague Peoples powwow and other East Coast powwows.

Searching for identity

Medicine Cat recalls that when he was a boy growing up on the Eastern Shore his grandfather was one of the very few of his generation who was completely open about his Indian ancestors.

Others with Indian backgrounds remained silent, he remembers, either to avoid racist attacks or because they were ashamed of that past or indifferent to it, and didn't want to talk about it.

Medicine Cat's family held powwows when he was a boy.

"It was our family and a few other families getting together," he says.

But those get-togethers came to an end; the last one was held about 1952 or 1954, he says.

That left him without an Indian connection, a lack he began to feel more sorely as he grew older. As a young man, he explains, "I was starved to death to learn the old traditions."

A chance meeting with a Lakota elder from out west offered him a chance to reconnect with his past.

"He said to me that he'd seen me in a dream and that I should come to the Lakota reservation," Medicine Cat remembers. He went west, "15 or so trips altogether," to places like the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

Those trips took place in the 1970s and 1980s, the time when the American Indian Movement was gaining momentum, and the time, too, when powwows around the country were on the increase, as more Indians began to celebrate their heritage.

What Medicine Cat liked most was the fact that the Lakotas had "preserved their own ways without corruption from white culture," he says. From them he gained the Indian past that he feared he had lost.

For Mrs. Baldwin, 59, and tribal historian Fox, 49, the powwow and tribal membership are part of similar quests. Mrs. Baldwin, adopted as a baby, didn't know about her Cherokee past until a dying aunt told her when Mrs. Baldwin was 30.

"I had always felt I didn't fit in [in white culture], and then I knew why," she says. Now it is her work with the tribe that helps define who she is, she explains.

Tribal historian Fox says that her father always said the family had Indian blood but didn't say which tribe. That set her on a search to identify her ancestors, who turned out to be Wyandot.

"It's been a long process of learning as much as I can about what being Native American means," she says.

Passing it on

Talk to any tribal elder for very long and he or she is likely to mention how important children are to the tribe's future. Medicine Cat points to a nearby grandson, happy that's he's at the powwow to experience his Indian heritage.

Children are welcomed as dancers in many of the dances at the Assateague Peoples' powwow. One dance for youngsters has an interesting twist: When the drumming stops in this variation on the cakewalk, the boys and girls get to pick up as much candy as they can from the arena floor before the drumming starts again.

Many of the Indian stories told at the two-day event are directed at children and are meant to teach life lessons. In one anti-drug message, the storyteller begins by describing "a young man who walked up a mountain and saw a snake."

The snake asked the boy to carry him down the mountain where it was a lot warmer, the storyteller continues. At first the boy refused, saying, "You're a snake, you'll bite." But he carried the snake down the mountain anyway, and when he got to the bottom, the snake bit him.

When the boy protested, the snake said, "But you knew what I was when you picked me up."

The moral of the story: "Leave drugs and alcohol alone," the storyteller concludes. "You know what they are when you take them up."

The visitors

Indian children come to the powwow in tribal dress. But even non-Indian youngsters get caught up in the celebration. Shenay Wharton, a resident of Virginia's Eastern Shore, brought along her boy Kylen, 5, and his sister, Kayla, 3.

Kylen found himself quickly smitten by the drums and Indian regalia. Kayla found the drumming too loud, but gradually warmed up and was soon dancing, along with her brother, in the arena with other children.

Mrs. Wharton liked the powwow too. "So much culture around," she said, "So much art and crafts and beads we can look at."

Chief Medicine Cat pronounced himself pleased with the powwow as well. "The traditions are alive. They're being passed on to another generation," he says.

"I've learned a great deal," he adds about the years he's spent learning his Indian past. "I'm still learning and I'll continue to do so."

Powwows this summer

Powwows celebrate American Indian heritage through traditional tribal music, drumming, dance, story-telling, and arts and crafts. The Assateague People's powwow in May was just the start of a summer's worth of Indian cultural gatherings. For information about powwows throughout the United States see powwows.com and whisperingwind.com.

Here's a brief local guide, by date.

{bullet} July 14-15 — Howard County 15th Annual Powwow and Show: Howard County Fairgrounds, 1022 Fairground Road, West Friendship, Md. 11 a.m.-7 p.m. July 14, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. July 15. Admission $5-$6. Call Barry Richardson at 252/257-5383 or e-mail powwow@vance.net.

{bullet} Aug. 24-26 — Baltimore American Indian Center 33rd Annual Intertribal Baltimore Pow-Wow: Patterson Park, 400 South Linwood Ave., Baltimore. 2-9 p.m. Aug. 24, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Aug. 25, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Aug. 26. Admission $3-$10. Free to children under 5. Bring blankets and chairs. 410/675-3535 or baic.org.

{bullet} Sept. 8-9 — Nanticoke Indian Powwow: Just off Delaware Route 24 near Oak Orchard Road, near Millsboro in Sussex County. Check for powwow signs on Route 24. Noon-late afternoon Sept. 8; guests are asked to arrive early and bring chairs. 10 a.m.-late afternoon Sept. 9; worship service 10 a.m. Parking/admission $5. Free shuttle from parking lot to powwow site. 302/945-3400.

{bullet} Meanwhile, the Nanticoke Indian Museum at 27073 John J. Williams Highway (at routes 24 and 5 near Oak Orchard Road) is open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday during the summer months; call 302/945-7022. For information and background, see nanticokeindians.org.

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