Tribes keep history alive at annual Schemitzun powwow

Mashantucket — With thousands of visitors and dozens of Native American tribes from across the country, the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe commenced the first day of its Schemitzun Festival on Saturday, celebrating the long-held traditions of their Feast of Green Corn and Dance.

The festival, which has been celebrated among tribe members “over hundreds of years, even thousands,” event organizer Michael Thomas said, has been publicly hosted by the Mashantuckets over the last 28 years. It is a way to celebrate the time of year that the tribe traditionally would harvest its corn, keep its song and dance traditions alive, and welcome the public to learn more about its culture.

In addition to a 17th-century Eastern Woodland village, where historical cultural practices were on view, and traditional cuisine, clothing and craft items for sale, an hourslong competition featuring several dances acted as the focal point to the two-day festival.

On the Cultural Ground’s grass dance circle, Thomas explained, tribe members stepped to dances “that every tribe knows and practices,” such as the Fancy and Traditional dances, as well as ones specific to different regions across the country.

“The grass dance, for example, originated in the Great Plains,” said Thomas’ son, Phyllip Thomas, who was also singing and drumming Saturday in a drum circle formed with cousins and relatives. “The Smoke Dance, as another example, originated in upstate New York, while the Eastern War Dance is specific to eastern tribes.”

“Each dance tells a story and celebrates something different,” Phyllip said. “Like how to the Women’s Eastern Blanket Dance is about their coming of age, it signifies the different times in their lives.”

Likening the festival to a family reunion, Phyllip explained that even though powwows like Schemitzun are focused around dance and song competitions, they're also an opportunity for tribes to come together to keep paying their traditions forward as a combined collective.

He said that each tribe will typically host its own powwow every summer, and tribes travel from event to event, supporting one another.

Michael Thomas said that members of more than 40 tribes from across the country were present at Schemitzun on Saturday, with some coming from as far away as Wisconsin, the Dakotas and Minnesota, and “that’s just from the people I’ve seen so far. I know there’s more.”

“This is about carrying on our traditions,” Michael Thomas said. “All of our kids are taught how to dance before they can walk and they can sing before they can talk. This is something we do to stay connected.”

“If we weren’t to cherish these traditions, we would lose them,” Phyllip added. “These powwows are how we keep them alive.”

"These aren’t things we can write down or store in a computer," Phyllip said. "These are passed through word of mouth, through dance, over thousands of years. And because we pass them just by word of mouth, it makes all of this that much more sacred.”

m.biekert@theday.com

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