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Schemitzun canceled

MASHANTUCKET, Conn. – The economic downturn has hit the biggest summer pow wow on the East Coast.

Schemitzun, the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation’s annual Feast of Green Corn and Dance, has been canceled for the 2009 season and beyond.

The tribal nation announced the cancelation last month in letters to tribal members, employees, tribal leaders, vendors and sponsors.

“We extend our sincere gratitude to you for many years of participation and appreciation for the annual Schemitzun powwow and rodeo held here in Southeastern Connecticut. Unfortunately, due to the current recession in the U.S. economy and in conjunction with cost-saving measures already underway throughout the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, the Tribal Council has determined the need to cancel and/or postpone certain activities that are not considered essential in nature,” the letter said.

The Mashantucket Pequot, federally recognized in 1983, hosted the first Schemitzun in 1991. Schemitzun is a harvest celebration and a Mashantucket Pequot tribal tradition.

By 2008, it had grown to a cross-cultural, intertribal event celebrating centuries of tradition and culture of more than 500 American Indian tribes, and attracting tens of thousands of people to southeastern Connecticut. Schemitzun grew so large it even generated an East Coast v. West Coast debate on pow wow Web sites about whether it or the huge Gathering of Nations spring pow wow in Albuquerque, N.M. , was superior.

The four-day festival usually takes place in late August at the end of the northeast region’s pow wow trail. It has been a massive event where more than 100 Native artists, artisans, regalia designers, clothiers and other vendors demonstrated and sold their crafts at the Indian Marketplace. A juried art competition awarded best of show prizes to the top artists in various categories.

At the heart of Schemitzun were the spectacular dance and drum competitions with hundreds of participants from all over the continent competing for big money prizes. The event also featured a traditional northeastern Indian village with exhibits and presentations, and bull riding – a rare sight in Connecticut. Last year’s Schemitzun featured the Michael T. Goodwin Memorial Rodeo “North America’s finest Native bull riders” competing for prizes.

The Schemitzun celebration has been canceled until further notice.

“At this time, the council has decided to cancel the 2009 Schemitzun powwow and rodeo events, and indefinitely postpone future Schemitzun events until such time as the event can be reorganized to better reflect the tribe’s mission combining cultural preservation with cost-efficiency,” the council’s letter states.

The tribal nation does intend to revive the pow wow at some point.

“We thank you for your support and understanding as we continue to make decisions in the best interest of our nation, and we look forward to once again hosting an improved version of this important cultural event in future years to come, once economic factors allow,” the council said.

Lori Potter, the nation’s manager of government and media relations, said the annual Schemitzun is an expensive event for the tribe to undertake.

“It’s been very expensive every year. I don’t have exact numbers, but very expensive. It’s one more event that we have had to host the cultural community from the tribal nations nationwide and it was a gathering held for so many years, but we just had to cut back for budgetary reasons and the economy. We don’t intend to end it forever, just for a few years till we start to see that we can host it again at the level we did before.”

Potter put to rest a rumor that has been circulating, which claimed that an Iraqi man had “purchased” Schemitzun and then decided to cancel it.

“That’s totally false. This is the first time I’ve heard that one! I’m not surprised; I’ve heard some crazy rumors in my day. It doesn’t make any sense at all.”

The Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut declined to comment on what, if any, economic impact the canceled celebration would have on the local communities.

Lance Gumbs, a former Shinnecock Indian Nation board of trustees member, said the cancelation of Schemitzun is “a big disappointment” both personally and to his tribe. Gumbs has had a long association with Schemitzun as an arena director and chief judge.

“For us at Shinnecock, it’s a major disappointment because our pow wow is the week after and we always relied on the vendors and dancers who come out east on the pow wow circuit. They usually go to Mohegan, and Schemitzun and then Shinnecock. I had a number of conversations with some vendors and dancers who say it’s not worth coming east for just one or two events, and of course our prize money is nowhere near Schemitzun’s.”

Schemitzum was also an educational opportunity for many western Native people, Gumbs said.

“Schemitzun is just a wonderful, fantastic event to have that many Indian people come to the east and see some of our eastern traditions. I talked to a Lakota man who said he didn’t realize we were still dancing in the east, so it’s an educational experience for people who aren’t aware that we still maintain our culture here. Some of them aren’t aware that we still exist.”

Even the word “powwow” is eastern, Gumbs said. It derives from an Algonquin word, “pauwaus,” he said.

Not all pow wows are feeling the economic pinch, however. According to a Reuters story, the 26th Annual Gathering of Nations pow wow, which took place in Albuquerque in April attracted more than 150,000 people. The event brought between $20 and $30 million of revenue to the city during the current recession.

Additionally, artisans, craftsmen and traders at the Indian Trader’s Market sold more than $2 million in goods and services at the event. The pow wow also generated exposure for up and coming performing artists as nearly 40 musical groups and entertainers performed at the event.