The Paumanauke Pow Wow - Native American Living Arts Festival

Text & Photos by Farah S. Kamal

The Babylon Town Hall Park was a spectacular site of colour, laughter, children and families enjoying Indigenous American crafts, traditional food and games, all organised neatly in 60 tents. Heart throbbing traditional tribal music emanates from the drumbeats complimented by the melodious tune of flute.

Having parents living in Long Island, New York, it’s a second home for me, and I happen to travel here quiet often and explore. I was glad to be here this afternoon. Earlier the day of this lazy summer morning, I was leafing through the pages of Long Island summer activities book. My eyes caught a post about a Native American Living Arts Festival. An hour’s drive later, I along with my sister-in-law Nadia, my camera and a bunch of excited children at our toes, were all strolling among the fanfare at the Babylon Park. Travelling and exploring with children is one of the most useful hands on educational activity.

This was a pow wow festival, an American traditional event at which people gather to honour and celebrate the indigenous American culture. Pow wow is the Narragansett (a Native American tribe) word for “a wise speaker”. Native Americans, as they are referred to, are the people belonging to different indigenous tribes around the Western Hemisphere. One of the person indigenously dressed as the tribal chief explained that traditionally pow wows were organised to help drive away sickness, ensure success in battle, interpret dreams, or to help individuals or tribes in other ways. Prayers, singing, dancing and drumming were all used by pow wows in those ceremonies. Wherever indigenous American people gathered there was feasting, socialising and trading, so the gatherings themselves came to be called pow wows. These communities around United States organise and celebrate these spectacular events, with lots of fan fare and activities for all in a traditional manner.

Exploring around the 31st Paumanauke Pow Wow and Native American Living Arts Festival, I got an insight into the rich culture of indigenous Americans. We watched dances, looked at handicrafts and enjoyed food and music. There were speakers explaining how these things play a part in the Native American way of life. Hanging from strings were sling shots at one of the stalls. ‘How cool is it, I want one!’ exclaimed my niece. Yes, we grew up playing with our good old ‘ghulail’ in Pakistan, but these are some fancy ones of animal shaped carved wood. I got myself a dream catcher; instantly fell in love with these willow hoops decorated using bits of feathers, arrow heads and beads. The dream catchers are hung by the bed and are believed to have the power to catch all of a person's dreams, trapping the bad ones, and letting only the good dreams pass through it.

The central attraction of the event is the main pow wow arena where a band was playing. Scattered around the park were dancers busy getting ready in their colourful traditional get-up for the grand entry and the performance at the arena, all dressed in beautiful Native American costumes and striking jewellery styles. These are distinguished by the materials used for making it like beads, shells, copper and silver, ivory, amber, turquoise and other stones. To me, it appeared very close to our own Pakistani ethnic jewellery. Suddenly there was a rush and everyone moved around the central arena, the pow wow session was going to start with the ‘Grand Entry’ and a prayer. I was fortunate to get a spot exclusively for media coverage. Dance is one of the most beautiful parts of indigenous American culture. Generations of indigenous Americans have developed a variety of dances for many different kinds of occasions. Pow wows are events where dance competitions are also held. The Eagle Staff lead the Grand Entry, he represents the honour and stature of the tribe, followed by flags then the dancers, while women and children were last to enter. To me, the dances seemed like beautiful movements that matched the rhythm of the songs. Their musicians played some mesmerising tunes on a unique hand crafted drum. Flute is another musical instrument still popular among American Indians. They used the flute for ceremonies, for healing, for love, and for pleasure, as well.

One of the dancers adjusting his elaborate head gear of colourful feathers proudly told me that their dances have a purpose and significance beyond the moves – they express ideas. He pointed to one dance performance which was the Sun Dance and signifies the circle of life. This story will not be complete without mentioning that the Native American people who I met at the park, the performers, the vendors and the families, were most friendly and eager to share their history and their culture with everyone. They were exceptionally sweet while communicating and interacting. I connected with them and felt at home throughout, as I learned about indigenous Americans first hand. •