Karen Hunter has spent her birthday at the same place doing the same things with many of the same people every year in the 61 years since she was born — at home in Southampton, surrounded by tens of thousands of her fellow tribesmen and women.
For Hunter, her Sept. 4 birthday is an occasion marked by ceremonial drummers, dancers and prayers during the Shinnecock Indian Nation’s annual powwow.
Each year for the past several decades, the tribe has hosted the four-day gathering over Labor Day weekend, inviting fellow Native American tribes to celebrate their culture. Now in its 70th year, the event is one of the largest Native American gatherings on the East Coast.
“We live our culture every day. This is more of a sharing of our culture with the public,” Hunter says.
The powwow is open to the public, marking one of the few times each year that non-natives are invited to the Shinnecock grounds. It attracts 17,000 to 20,000 people over the four-day weekend, Hunter says. That count reflects just patrons who are not part of a tribe.
“It’s our holiday,” says Beverly Jensen, a Shinnecock elder who has lived on the reservation her entire life. “It’s like a homecoming.”
WHAT YOU’LL SEE
Traditional and elaborately made regalia — the term Hunter prefers to “costumes” — is worn by natives at the powwow, as are feathered headdresses and face paint.
“The regalia shows respect to the indigenous people,” Hunter says. Historically, the outfits are symbolic of a tribe and often reflect its geographic origins and may include its nearby resources such as shells.
The daily celebrations at the powwow include competitive dances, guest entertainment and prayers. Drums and traditional dances — including Grand Entry ceremonies marked with fire and other symbolism — feature prominently in Native American gatherings including the powwow.
The traditional songs and dances that the Shinnecock people display at powwow are also known as social dances that Eastern Woodland Algonquin Indians do at celebrations, ceremonies, and family reunions.
“These songs and dances are an expression of giving thanks to the Creator and reflect our resiliency as a people and cultural survival,” says Shinnecock tribe member Kelly Dennis. “Tribal community members pass down these dances and songs to the youth to continue on the age old traditions and to remember the hardships, history, and cooperative spirit of our ancestors.”
Hunter says a concerted effort is being made this year to encourage child performers to get on the main stage and take part in the tribes’ many ceremonial dances.
Among the new participants this year on the main stage is the Hawaiian dance group Pua Ali’i ’Ilima O Nuioka and the Tainos, an indigenous Caribbean tribe.
This year’s ceremonies will also recognize visiting tribal dignitaries and military veterans.
“The land is the basis of all our existence,” says Hunter, who, along with Shinnecock native Frederick Bess, helped organize this year’s celebration. “We give honor to those who protect our way of life.”
Powwows have attracted visiting tribesmen and women from as far as South America, Hunter says, which she believes speaks to the event’s potential to help scattered tribes stay connected. She anticipates representatives from every tribe in America will visit the Southampton grounds this Labor Day weekend.
Says Jensen, “We hope everyone from Long Island comes.”
WHEN|WHERE 3-9 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturday, Sunday and Monday, 1 W. Church St., Southampton, with Grand Entry of Dancers at 12:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. each day except Monday.
INFO 631-283-6143, shinnecockpowwow.org
ADMISSION $15 ($10 ages 6-12)