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Downsized Wigwam remains an upbeat event

MONTVILLE, Conn. (MCT) – For years, Mark Harding and Paula Peters, both Mashpee Wampanoags, have made the trip from Cape Cod to Uncasville for the Mohegans’ annual Wigwam Festival.

This year, despite the festival’s downsizing from two days to one and the elimination of some dance competitions, the couple joined hundreds of other Native Americans at Fort Shantok.

“It’s important for Mark and I to come,” said Peters. “We like to be supportive of the Mohegan culture, as they are with ours.”

Harding, a treasurer of the Wampanoag Tribe, and Peters, who was named Powwow Princess in 1976, are husband and wife. They chatted Aug. 15 while changing out of their fringed Native regalia after participating in a community dance around a small fire inside a tent half the size of a football field.

“There’s a lot of socializing,” Peters said. “I was dancing at powwows when I was 16. There are people here I only see at powwows.”

The annual event, which several years ago changed its name from powwow to Wigwam Festival, attracts Algonquian, Iroquois, Wampanoag, Narragansett, Pequot, Schaghticoke, Nipmuck and Golden Hill Paugussett Indians, among others.

More than 150 signed up to dance competitively and another 300, dressed in their best tribal regalia, danced informally with friends and family to insistent drum beats and chanting.

“Indian people come here to compete, but also to be with other Indian people and renew ancient relationships,” said Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel, the Mohegans’ tribal historian and medicine woman. “That’s what makes this different from other ethnic festivals.”

For hundreds of years, Zobel said, tribes from throughout New England have met annually to dance, sing, eat and give thanks for what they have.

“That’s how we kept peace and prosperity,” she said.

The festival, which has ebbed and flowed in size and participation over the years, took on the form it has today in the 1850s, Zobel said. It was a time when reservations were breaking up and American Indians were being forced to assimilate. A Mohegan medicine woman named Emma Baker had a dream in which she was told to rejuvenate the annual gathering to honor her ancestors.

“The essence has been the same,” Zobel said. “It’s a wonderful time to renew old friendships and uphold traditions to pass on to the next generation.”

Although the tribe downsized the event this year because of the slow economy, hundreds of onlookers joined the dancers during the free one-day event.

Four air-conditioned coach buses and three smaller buses delivered visitors who had parked a couple miles away at Mohegan Sun to the fort. In addition to the dancing, Native crafts were for sale and food vendors offered buffalo burgers, wild quail, frogs’ legs Wampanoag style and sassafras tea.

Seventeen-year-old Crystal Hodge and her niece, 9-year-old Auroia Aaron, have been coming from their home in Hamden to the Wigwam for at least six years.

The girls, who are Blackfoot Cherokee, said they love the food and watching the dancing. Someday, they said, they’d like to go out onto the wide open circle and dance around the fire with their fellow Indians. But for now, they’re content to watch.

“I’m too nervous,” said Hodge, “there’s too many people looking at me.”