Skip to main content

Reading History in Regalia: Three Stories of History and Culture Through Pow Wows

You can see many different types of regalia when you go to New England pow wows. Indian Country Today Media Network recently interviewed three distinctive dancers, each with their own rich cultural history, to learn the background of their regalia: why, where and how did they acquire their patterns, colors and materials?

The Moccasin Flower and the Pine Tree

Jill Cresey-Gross’s Abenaki ancestors lived in the present day states of Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine and north central Massachusetts. Today, there is a resurgence of Abenaki culture and pride throughout New England.

“We were never a traditional pow wow people,” Jill told ICTMN, “and my parents were not involved in pow wows, but I got interested in the late 1980s.”

Some of that period clothing is seen in the pow wow regalia worn today by Jill and others in New England circles, including “trade cloth,” a woolen-like cloth cut in traditional rectangles for wrap skirts, side-tab leggings, hoods and pouches that are then decorated with “trade silver” and “trade beads.”

“I beaded a big spray of pine and a pine cone on the wrap skirt” (the pine tree being of highest importance to her people). “Further, although my beadwork is not exactly like what would be worn in the eighteenth century, I appliqued the Wabanaki double curve design, and in a much larger scale than what my ancestors would have done. I also use sparkling, contemporary beads rather than (simulated) trade beads.”

Jill, noting that her mother loved the moccasin flower (also called the pink lady slipper, an orchid unique to the northeast woodlands) appliqued the orchid to her accessories.

On the other hand, Jill enjoys competition pow wows but those have specific dress guidelines and tribal requirements to place and to earn winnings. Therefore, when she competes, she will often fancy dance. “I bought my first fancy dance shawl second-hand and then beaded all the accessories” to make it her own.

First Light, Water, and Cranberry

Actor, model, teacher and dancer Annawon Weedon also lives in Massachusetts, but south of Jill on Cape Cod, a place with an entirely different landscape and story.

When ICTMN caught up to him, he had just returned from Newcomb, New Mexico where he had been asked to dance for the Cheschilly family of the Dine/Navajo Nation. “Anyone, from kids on up, understand when they look at my regalia and watch me dance that I come from a land of fresh water ponds and rivers as well as land alongside the ocean.” (Annawon’s breechclout features a beaded canoe, and he will often wear a wampum sash; he also dances a canoe dance). “And this is what the Cheschilly family wanted me to bring to them. Four hundred square miles of their reservation had recently burned by wildfires.”

Unlike Jill’s family, Annawon’s family has been dancing for generations. “I come from three tribes,” he explained, “Pequot and Narraganset from my Dad and Mashpee Wampanoag from my mother. In our culture, we follow the mother so I am considered Wampanoag.

“Rather than ribbons and fabric I prefer to use the old materials such as porcupine quill, shell, natural dyes, and hand woven fabrics. I watched my dad break the pattern of emulating western styles, a pow wow style that spoke of Native pride but didn’t show who we are as individual tribes.”

Scroll to Continue

Read More

Annawon’s father’s generation may have at one time worn plains-style headdresses, and even today the Eastern War Dance and Massachusetts native dress style may not be an acceptable part of competition pow wows. “I want to carry his intentions forward, no matter what, even though we are sometimes publicly ridiculed and asked to leave certain (western) pow wows.”

A 2010 Sacred Paddle canoe trip taken by Annawon and many others commemorated the particular “trail of tears” of Massachusetts’ natives by following the same course taken in the fall of 1675 by over 500 native people, most from the first reservations on this continent, who were removed from their homes, shackled, and ordered at gunpoint to Deer Island, a barren island in Boston Harbor. The people were left without food or shelter and were shot if they even built a fire. Over half died of exposure and starvation. Today, after a long struggle to preserve the death site, which now hosts an enormous waste water treatment facility, Massachusetts’ natives hold an annual ceremony.

One fact many were not aware of that happened during the 2010 Sacred Paddle continues to haunt the dancer: “The Coast Guard pointed machine guns at us and turned us further out into the harbor where we might all have died. They said we were too close to the airport runways in our dugout canoes.” This occurred after the participants had done a Sacred Run of twelve miles from Natick, the former sight of the Indian Praying Town, to Watertown, paddled miles up the Charles River in traditional mishoons and a war canoe, and passed through the locks to Boston Harbor.

Some insults only enforce staying true to one’s commitments. A canoe figures prominently into Annawon's design.

“The double curve design I put on either end of the canoe is attributed to the fiddlehead fern, a fern unique to my homeland. The triangles depict the ocean but also fresh water ponds. The wool’s cranberry color also tells our story since cranberries are unique to our homeland. Actually, the cranberry could be considered the entire story. The yellow trim represents that we are People of the First Light, we are first on the continent to greet the sun. Yet, my regalia looks similar to the way we dressed in the seventeenth century.”

Migration and living culture

A bittersweet story is behind the reason that Lorena Novak’s kuspik (the traditional dress of her Inupiaq/Alaska family) was fifteen years in the making. “When I went back to Alaska where I was born and where my mother was born and lived, I took note of the clothing that people like my aunties wore every day.”

Lorena’s parents had met when her father was stationed at Elmondorf Air Force Base in Anchorage and her mother worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Their cultural differences were highlighted when the family moved to her father’s native Massachusetts for work. “One primary difference,” Lorena said, “was that my mother was used to having a huge extended family around, even in the city.” Lorena’s mother returned to Alaska after the divorce and then, sadly, passed away when the children were still young.

So, Lorena was in her twenties before she re-connected to her Inupiaq family. There was a grand homecoming. “A party of fifty people showed up at the airport when my sister and I first visited,” Lorena said.

Today, Lorena takes an annual migration of her own to Alaska from Massachusetts with her husband and daughter to stay connected to her mother’s people.

“I just didn’t want to go to Massachusetts pow wows in deer skin or ribbon dresses, even though people advised me to do that.” To learn about her ancestral clothing, as well as to dance in it in her home state, Lorena said, “There was a lot of my going to Alaska and observing and asking.”

Eventually, she made her own clothing. “My sister and I found a pattern for the traditional kuspuq and made it ourselves. The cotton and trim for it can fortunately be found around here. Then, little by little I added my own things, such as the fur rough and whale bone accessories. I did have to buy my mukluks, which are the bottoms of the traditional footwear, and kamik, which is the top of the mukluk and is of moose or caribou. My kuspik has a hood. There are different stories about that -- it is a big hood to protect from mosquitoes while picking berries and it keeps the bugs off the neck and ears.”

Those who attend New England pow wows and notice Lorena can learn more about Alaskan culture. “I love that I can support contemporary Alaska Native artists,” Lorena says after explaining that the purchased accessories she wears include a story teller’s bracelet of ivory and baleen, a bone necklace, and a walrus vertebrae pendant.

The flexibility and freedom of the New England pow wow is an opportunity for these dancers to teach tribal history and identity -- as well as to display their personal passions. Their stories are woven through their regalia.