East meets western Plains culture at Schemitzun

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MASHANTUCKET, Conn. ñ Schemitzun started as the Pequot Festival of Green Corn, but it has evolved into an important meeting place between the New England tribes and the Native culture of the western Plains. It could even be called their most significant contact since Buffalo Bill Cody brought his Wild West troupe of Plains Indians on a pilgrimage to Norwich in 1907.

Nearly a century ago, Pequot, Mohegan and Narragansett Indians were tremendously impressed by Sioux warriors as the showman and former scout led them in full regalia in a horseback procession to the grave of Uncas. Although eastern Native dress was historically quite different, local tribal leaders copied the Plains war bonnets as an expression of pride and still wear them in private ceremonies. The western influence still runs strong in Schemitzun, which includes one of the largest pow wows in the country.

The host Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation has the resources to attract some of the best-known drum groups and dancers around, thanks to its enormously profitable Foxwoods Casino Resort just a short hop north of the Schemitzun grounds. The four-day pow wow under a white tent the size of a football field draws tourists from all over. But as in Buffalo Billís visit, the Native spirit trumps the showmanship.

Plains ritual came to the fore almost immediately on the first night, when an exhibition Northern

Traditional Dance ended with an eagle feather lying on the grass. The master of ceremonies interrupted the program and asked spectators to turn off their cameras and video recorders as Lakota dancers performed the ìFeather Pick Upî ceremony. The four, all war veterans, took positions at each direction. Three in regalia made grave and precise gestures at the fallen feather with their eagle wing fan, but the honor of the pickup went to Terry Fiddler, the well-known master of ceremonies from Eagle Butte, S.D.

Fiddler came to the microphone to explain that retrieving the fallen feather was like bringing back comrades fallen in battle. The dancers, he said, included members of the Lakota Red Feather Society, one of the highest honors for wounded veterans. To qualify, warriors had to have been wounded three times, each time in separate battles. When a feather falls, he said, ìIt says to us as Indian people that something might not be right. Somebody needs our prayers.î

The program also brought exposure to a less spiritual side of western Indian life. The Michael T. Goodwin Memorial Buck-a-Rama is becoming a regular stop on the All-Indian Rodeo Cowboy Association tour. Champion bull riders like the Granger brothers, Navajo from Tuba City, Ariz.; Bo Vocu, Oglala Lakota from Kyle, S.D.; and Jay and Blue Garza, Walker River Paiute/Standing Rock Sioux from Sparks, Nev., are now familiar names at Schemitzun, making the long drive from their previous competition at Crow Fair in Montana. Terry Granger was last yearís Buck-a-Rama overall winner, taking home a healthy reward.

But the risks were all too apparent, as many ìgo-roundsî ended with only one or two successful rides, and one rider was evacuated by ambulance after being tossed for a spectacular somersault through the air. (Announcer Jerry Belles told the relieved audience later that the rider would be all right.) Perennial heroes of the show were the arena clowns and bullfighters, notably barrel man John Hayden, who in between earthy repartee did the serious business of distracting the bulls from thrown riders.

The Schemitzun program did its part toward developing a fan base for the event, named for a late Mashantucket Pequot member and rodeo devotee who introduced it eight years ago. The publication included a scorecard and four pages of photos of the cowboys, who were also available to sign autographs.

But the cultural exchange went both ways. A popular recent addition to the weekend, the Schemitzun Village, displayed the life and crafts of southern New England tribes. As a cooking fire burned down to embers, presenter Cassius Spears, Narragansett, turned an appetizing turkey breast on a spit. Cylindrical wooden bowls by his side held cranberries, blueberries and blackberries, ingredients for baking a loaf of bread.

Spears explained that the village included both winter and summer dwellings. Heavy, dark bark sided the winter dwelling, a wissquatoo. The summer hut behind the fire, a wetu, consisted of mats of cattail reeds draped over a sapling frame. The reeds, said Spears, expanded when wet and kept out the rain; in hot sunshine, they contracted and allowed breezes to blow through the dwelling. He marveled at the ingenious use of materials.

ìWe really enjoy educating,î he added.

The master of ceremonies occasionally poked fun at the meeting of cultures. In a perennial Schemitzun joke, one explained to the Sioux visitors that the label on the barrels scattered around the grounds was ìwaste,î for trash, not the two-syllable Lakota word waste (pronounced ìwash-teî) for ìgood.î

MASHANTUCKET, Conn. ñ Schemitzun started as the Pequot Festival of Green Corn, but it has evolved into an important meeting place between the New England tribes and the Native culture of the western Plains. It could even be called their most significant contact since Buffalo Bill Cody brought his Wild West troupe of Plains Indians on a pilgrimage to Norwich in 1907.Nearly a century ago, Pequot, Mohegan and Narragansett Indians were tremendously impressed by Sioux warriors as the showman and former scout led them in full regalia in a horseback procession to the grave of Uncas. Although eastern Native dress was historically quite different, local tribal leaders copied the Plains war bonnets as an expression of pride and still wear them in private ceremonies. The western influence still runs strong in Schemitzun, which includes one of the largest pow wows in the country.The host Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation has the resources to attract some of the best-known drum groups and dancers around, thanks to its enormously profitable Foxwoods Casino Resort just a short hop north of the Schemitzun grounds. The four-day pow wow under a white tent the size of a football field draws tourists from all over. But as in Buffalo Billís visit, the Native spirit trumps the showmanship.Plains ritual came to the fore almost immediately on the first night, when an exhibition NorthernTraditional Dance ended with an eagle feather lying on the grass. The master of ceremonies interrupted the program and asked spectators to turn off their cameras and video recorders as Lakota dancers performed the ìFeather Pick Upî ceremony. The four, all war veterans, took positions at each direction. Three in regalia made grave and precise gestures at the fallen feather with their eagle wing fan, but the honor of the pickup went to Terry Fiddler, the well-known master of ceremonies from Eagle Butte, S.D.Fiddler came to the microphone to explain that retrieving the fallen feather was like bringing back comrades fallen in battle. The dancers, he said, included members of the Lakota Red Feather Society, one of the highest honors for wounded veterans. To qualify, warriors had to have been wounded three times, each time in separate battles. When a feather falls, he said, ìIt says to us as Indian people that something might not be right. Somebody needs our prayers.îThe program also brought exposure to a less spiritual side of western Indian life. The Michael T. Goodwin Memorial Buck-a-Rama is becoming a regular stop on the All-Indian Rodeo Cowboy Association tour. Champion bull riders like the Granger brothers, Navajo from Tuba City, Ariz.; Bo Vocu, Oglala Lakota from Kyle, S.D.; and Jay and Blue Garza, Walker River Paiute/Standing Rock Sioux from Sparks, Nev., are now familiar names at Schemitzun, making the long drive from their previous competition at Crow Fair in Montana. Terry Granger was last yearís Buck-a-Rama overall winner, taking home a healthy reward.But the risks were all too apparent, as many ìgo-roundsî ended with only one or two successful rides, and one rider was evacuated by ambulance after being tossed for a spectacular somersault through the air. (Announcer Jerry Belles told the relieved audience later that the rider would be all right.) Perennial heroes of the show were the arena clowns and bullfighters, notably barrel man John Hayden, who in between earthy repartee did the serious business of distracting the bulls from thrown riders.The Schemitzun program did its part toward developing a fan base for the event, named for a late Mashantucket Pequot member and rodeo devotee who introduced it eight years ago. The publication included a scorecard and four pages of photos of the cowboys, who were also available to sign autographs.But the cultural exchange went both ways. A popular recent addition to the weekend, the Schemitzun Village, displayed the life and crafts of southern New England tribes. As a cooking fire burned down to embers, presenter Cassius Spears, Narragansett, turned an appetizing turkey breast on a spit. Cylindrical wooden bowls by his side held cranberries, blueberries and blackberries, ingredients for baking a loaf of bread.Spears explained that the village included both winter and summer dwellings. Heavy, dark bark sided the winter dwelling, a wissquatoo. The summer hut behind the fire, a wetu, consisted of mats of cattail reeds draped over a sapling frame. The reeds, said Spears, expanded when wet and kept out the rain; in hot sunshine, they contracted and allowed breezes to blow through the dwelling. He marveled at the ingenious use of materials. ìWe really enjoy educating,î he added. The master of ceremonies occasionally poked fun at the meeting of cultures. In a perennial Schemitzun joke, one explained to the Sioux visitors that the label on the barrels scattered around the grounds was ìwaste,î for trash, not the two-syllable Lakota word waste (pronounced ìwash-teî) for ìgood.î