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Native About New York: A Pow Wow in Queens, Complete With Farm Animals

It was about 3 p.m., and everyone and everything seemed to be melting simultaneously at the 36th Annual Thunderbird American Indian Mid-Summer Pow Wow in Queens, New York. Children cared little for play, and parents, armed with umbrellas and water and blankets for the ground, looked defeated by the sweltering heat.

At the other end of the dirt-grass pow wow grounds kneeled a woman by a semi-naked tree. She was in the middle of a weaving demonstration – stitching, thread-by-thread, periodically yanking like crazy on the threads connected to a rope lassoed to the trunk. A small crowd had gathered around her, stealing the spotlight from the bopping dancers, each on the brink of heatstroke. The woman, Miriam Gomez, is Mayan and traveled to Queens from Guatemala with her husband, Erickson, and son, Erickson Jr., to sell their ware, which included clothing, beadwork and little Mayan trinkets patrons would poke and massage with their greasy sunblock fingers.

Cliff Matias

Erikson holding his first ever, fully-beaded vest.

“She’s making a guipi,” Erikson said. “It’s a Mayan blouse. This one will take five to six months to complete.”

Cliff Matias

Erikson holding his first ever, fully-beaded vest.

Just on the other side of the tree, Erikson Jr. was busy winding yarn around a lock of a woman’s hair. “Hair wrapping” Erikson called it. Other women had congregated near Erikson Jr., pretending to shop at nearby vendors, so as to jump at the chance of being next.

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Erickson, portly and with a pleasant disposition, explained that he and his family travel to the U.S. every year on visa about this time to sell their work at pow wows; then it’s back to Guatemala until the next pow wow season. They’ll travel all over the east coast before it’s time to return home again where they continue in their trade, named Mayan Weaving.

This is the family’s 19th year on the road selling their goods.

By 5 p.m., there was no reprieve from the brutal sun. Even a quick summer sprinkle wasn’t enough to cool down the crowd.

When 7 p.m. quickly rolled around, it was time for grand entry. Yet, between the pageantry and talent of the dancers, in the middle of the arena, stood erect a bundle of wood. Rumor quickly spread that people had come for the coups de grace – the bonfire – as much as the fry bread and dancing. Like firework fanatics at the Brooklyn Bridge on Independence Day, people clamored around the arena to get a good spot to witness the blaze. They’d have to wait two more hours before the stack was ignited, and then, when it was, the fiery wave boomed into the New York sky – it’s whipping flames reflecting in the eyes of every onlooker as Native dancers danced around the bundle of heat as if they hadn’t been subjected to high temperatures all day long.

It was like Kevin Costner and Two Socks all over again, but this time in Queens and with chickens and goats and peacocks a couple hundred yards away – because this pow wow was held on a farm.

Bats. In the parking lot they squeaked and smacked the heads of people rushing to their cars either from fear of rabies or a mugger lying in wait. The lot was nearly pitch black, though not as black as the walk it took to get back to the car. People walked in groups, others ran for their lives through cooing sounds and high-pitched squeals coming from a creature unseen. … The fire was great, but the fear was greater and people began to leave the pow wow, the farm, after having their fill of the dying flame in the arena – a bonfire that had been dwarfed by bright stadium lights, killing the natural spectacle of a lone fire in the night.

Then, in the dark, out by the parking lot, a shriek. A scream! “It’s a banshee!” someone yelled. “It’s a pig or something! It’s gotten loose! Run!”

“There are no pigs out here, I think,” a faceless voice yelled back. “Get in the car!” another responded, sounding absolutely terrified. Laughter broke the tension and no pig was ever reported by local media to have escaped Queens County Farm Museum that night.

On the ride back to Park Slope, Brooklyn, on the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, the dim of east Queens faded like a lantern and the majesty of Manhattan emerged over the hill, guiding us back to more madness.