Eastern Shore Powwow Brings Culture to Life; Indians Celebrate Unique Past, Hopeful Future

Article excerpt


Larry Smack - Chief Medi- cine Cat- looks pleased, maybe just a bit anxious. The weatherman has called for a 20 percent chance of rain, but right now it's a beautiful spring morning on Maryland's Eastern Shore, and the 14th Annual Pow-Wow of the Assateague Peoples of Delaware, Maryland and Virginia is about to begin.

Medicine Cat, a slim and wiry 67, has been chief for 15 years, but the powwow has been a dream of his for much longer, ever since he was a young man hungry to learn more about his Indian heritage and eager to celebrate it.

Among the native peoples of North America, the gathering known as the powwow is a potent instrument of communal spirit.

Spelled variously in English, the word was taken from the Narragansett people of New England in the 17th century and meant at that time both "shaman," or seer, and a tribal celebration at which sacred rites were performed. By the early 19th century its meaning had come to include a tribal conference or social gathering.

No other event offers so colorful a blend of Indian traditions, from song and dance to storytelling and art.

And no other event provides a better way to fulfill two needs: "to show non-Indians what Native Americans are all about," says Medicine Cat, and at the same time "create strong feelings of community among Indians."

Now, thanks to Medicine Cat and many others such as Clan Mother Diane Baldwin and tribal historian Gail Fox, the powwow of the Assateague Peoples is a reality.

One from many

The Assateague Peoples are just that - a tribe made up of various peoples. The original Assateagues were decimated by disease and war after the European arrival on the Eastern Shore in the 17th century.

Those Assateagues who survived were assimilated into white culture through marriage. Today's tribe is comprised of their descendants, as well as the descendants of other tribes.

"We're a Heinz 57 Varieties group," says Mrs. Fox, whose tribal name is Midnight Star. She is descended from Wyandots, a tribe related to the Hurons of Canada. Mrs. Baldwin is a Cherokee, a tribe originally from North Carolina and Tennessee.

And Chief Medicine Cat is only part Assateague.

"I'm also part Cherokee, part other tribes, part Dutch," he says.

What unites the many different peoples that make up the 45 members of the tribe, its elders say, is their strong desire to celebrate their Indian heritage, make it a central part of their lives, and hand it over to their children.

Pocomoke drums

Cypress Park in Pocomoke City is an ideal spot for the Assateague powwow, held this year - and each year - on a May weekend. Centuries ago, the tribe lived and hunted in the area. Tribal members, usually with a grin, like to call themselves "the first residents of Ocean City," the resort nearby where Indians gathered clams and oysters long before it became a popular vacation spot.

It's that past the Assateagues evoke so powerfully during the two days they spend together powwowing.

"We remember the past not just for itself but for what it means for today and for our children," says Mrs. Baldwin, whose tribal name is Singing Fire Wolf. A powwow can be a guide, she says, "for those who want to follow the red road" - that is, Indian or "red man" traditions.

It's no surprise that the Assateague call this powwow "Drums on the Pocomoke." The drumming is likely to be the first thing visitors hear that signals something unusual is taking place, something different from the standard county fair.

The drumming - this year done by Iroquois Thunder Heart, a group from Pennsylvania - and the chanting that goes along with it transport participants into another world and time, and that is the intention, tribal elders say.

The drumming is held in such high esteem that one of the prayers that opens the event gives thanks for the drummers and the sounds they make. …