Wampanoag Youth Powwow attracts hundreds, strengthens tribe


AQUINNAH, Mass. - Hundreds of Native youth will gather on the sacred cliffs of the island of Noepe (Martha's Vineyard) for the third annual Wampanoag Tribe of Aquinnah Youth Powwow Sept. 8.

The event will take place from noon until 6 p.m. with dancers, traditional food vendors and crafts sales. Rez Dog will be the host drum group, with two other drums also performing.

The newly established Youth Powwow is quickly becoming a tradition for this island nation. Although people of all ages attend, the focus is on young people from neighboring tribes and beyond who travel to the celebration on the seaside cliffs.

The pow wow is organized and hosted by a group of tribal teenagers who meet regularly.

The event is part of a drug prevention effort underwritten by the Department of Justice.

''Around five years ago, we were lucky enough to be a recipient of the Justice Department drug and violence prevention grant for alternatives to risky behavior,'' said Kristina Hook, a tribal elder who works in the tribe's Human Services Department and mentors the youth group that hosts the pow wow.

Although drug and alcohol abuse is not rampant in the tribal community, Hook said, it is widespread on Martha's Vineyard, one of the East Coast's wealthiest seaside retreats where land can go for $200,000 an acre - without a view of the sea.

The youth program puts the emphasis on prevention, Hook said.

''As crazy as it sounds, Martha's Vineyard has the highest incidence of drug and alcohol abuse relative to the size of the population on the island. There's such a disparity between the tribal people and the newer kinds of homes for the rich and famous. Everyone kind of assumes we're all rich and famous here, when we're struggling to buy back our own land,'' Hook said.

The tribe had not had a pow wow for 70 years, so the goal for the first three years of the grant was to host a pow wow organized and sponsored by the kids, Hook said.

In addition to Hook, two young tribal men act as sponsors to the group of around 15 teenagers ranging in age from 13 to 18.

The group meets every Wednesday night to plan the pow wow, assign tasks, and go over what's been accomplished.

''Kids from all over New England come to the pow wow - the Narragansett, the Mashpee, Pequots and all the kids they've interacted with. There's a group coming down from Harvard with their Native American program. We always hope the Hawaiians are in town,'' Hook said.

The tribe is involved in a Trade Winds program sponsored by the Peabody Essex Museum and the New Bedford Whaling Museum that involves Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians, Hook explained.

''It's about our people whaling. Our men were very sought after as boat steerers and harpooners in the whaling trade. The second harpooner in [the novel] 'Moby Dick' was a Gay Head Indian,'' Hook said.

Through the Trade Winds program, Hook has taken some of the Aquinnah youth to visit their Alaskan colleagues, and the Alaskans and Hawaiians have visited in return.

The young people are tasked with finding a drum for the pow wow and publicizing the event. Two apprentices with the tribe's historic preservation office have faxed fliers to all the United South and Eastern Tribes member tribes, and others have spread the word by distributing fliers at the Narragansett pow wow and Mashantucket Pequots' Schemitzun. Attendees arriving by boat from the mainland will be met by buses and driven the 18 miles to the tribal land, Hook said.

''We do the pow wow right up on the cliffs; right up in the circle. They're overlooking the south side and the surf; and a walk to the face of the cliffs, which we hold sacred, is three minutes away. We pump up those big drums and we dance for six hours and we usually have three or four traditional food vendors and our own people bring out all their crafts, and we go to it!'' Hook said.

The youth program is losing five of its seniors this year, all of whom were essential in getting the program going.

''One is going to Harvard; one is a Gates scholar going to Dartmouth on a full ride through graduate school; one is going to Newfoundland to study folklore and history; one is going to the University of New Mexico. We're just absolutely thrilled. For a little biddy tribe, we have worked hard and they just fill my heart, they really do,'' Hook said.

When people ask Hook why she loves the kids so passionately, she says it's because they give her hope.

''For those of us in our 40s, 50s, 60s, that historical stuff is still there way deep in our hearts, so we're half afraid and we just don't step out and try. That's what I'm hoping for these kids. I look at their ability to go forward without looking over their shoulder, to step out and take a chance and do the work. And if that carries into their adulthood and they come back here to have something to do with the tribe, we'll be in really good shape,'' Hook said.

For more information about the Youth Powwow, call (508) 645-9265.