The Shinnecock Indian Nation will close its annual powwow to outside visitors for the first time in 74 years in a pandemic-centered move with broad financial implications for the Southampton tribe and beyond.
The tribe will instead hold a closed internal gathering to continue the long tradition of an annual event, but the long Labor Day weekend will be closed to the tens of thousands who typically visit from across Long Island, the Northeast and the country.
"It wouldn't have been responsible to, as a tribal government, to proceed with an event that welcomed visitors from Long Island and across the country," said Bryan Polite, chairman of the Shinnecock Nation council of trustees. "It would have been irresponsible and actually dangerous to proceed."
COVID-19 cases are spiking across the country, including parts of the south and west where others who traditionally participate in the powwow travel from, officials said. The Shinnecock tribe has seen fewer than five cases of COVID-19, and New York State has vastly reduced cases from spikes in April, but the concerns about attracting potentially infected people from across the United States were too great, said Lance Gumbs, co-chairman of the vendor committee for the Shinnecock Powwow and a former tribal vice chairman.
“Obviously with the spikes we're seeing all over the country, especially from the southern U.S., we have a lot of visitors who would be coming from quarantined areas,” Gumbs said.
Gumbs also operates the Shinnecock Indian Outpost on Montauk Highway on the reservation that he said derives a substantial amount of its revenue from the Shinnecock Powwow, which he said is the largest in the Northeast. Other Northeast tribes, including the Mashpee Wampanoag, have already canceled their powwows.
The Shinnecock Powwow is a celebration of tribal traditions, including music, dance in tribal dress and food, but also an opportunity to sell Native products such as jewelry, clothing and food.
"It’s a huge financial blow to tribal members who have stands" to sell their crafts, clothing and food, said Polite, adding the income sometimes covers all their "entire winter bills."
“It’s going to be devastating for a lot of tribal members who rely on those funds to get through the winter,” Gumbs added. That income “helps out with buying school clothes for the kids and for winter heating bills,” he said.
The powwow also partly funds the tribal government, and its loss will have an impact on operations, though the nation has already received about $2.2 million in federal CARES Act funds and can apply for more with the loss of powwow revenue, officials said. It's also a funding source for the Shinnecock Presbyterian Church, which operates a food house and beverage area.
Polite said tribal government has been increasing economic activity to the point where the powwow isn't the biggest contributor. Shinnecock Sovereign Holdings is the umbrella corporation for the tribe's tobacco distribution, clothing and monument media enterprises, among others.
The tribe has already developed plans to use the federal stimulus money to help tribal members pay utility bills and make food purchases after a temporary food tent Gumbs helped organize on the reservation was shut down earlier this month. The tribe plans to build a permanent Emergency Relief Center with a full commercial kitchen, shelter-in-place area and a basement storage area, Polite said, using federal funds.
Some American Indians who travel throughout the country and the Northeast attending powwows will be hard hit as well, Gumbs said.
“It’s devastating to a lot of vendors,” he said. “I’ve had some call me up literally crying. It’s really been heartbreaking to hear some of the stories. A lot of the vendors don’t have livelihoods. They travel from powwow to powwow to powwow.”
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