CHARLESTOWN — Crowds of spectators gathered Saturday afternoon next to a circle of grass next to the Narragansett Indian Church, pulling chairs and blankets closer to the perimeter as the sound of drums and cheering grew louder, and smoke filled the air.
Adorned with feathers, fringed moccasins, spears, face paint and other traditional regalia, members of the Narragansett Indian Tribe entered the circle, swaying and shaking to the steady beat of drumming.
The 339th Annual Recorded Meeting had begun.
The traditional celebration of singing, dancing and ceremony for the Narragansetts drew hundreds of onlookers to their dusty Charlestown tribal land on Saturday, eager to get a glimpse into a way of life that has remained largely the same for several thousand years.
Though the event marked the 339th instance of the annual tribal meeting, most tribe members noted the tradition dates back far longer than that.
“It’s a way to honor those who came far before us, and to come together in the present,” said Loren Spears, a Narragansett and executive director of the Tomaquag Musuem in Exeter. “It’s just part of who we are.”
Chief Sachem Matthew Thomas, dressed in vibrant pink and feathered regalia, likened the event to a large family cookout.
“It’s like a giant family reunion,” he said.
Instead of classic Yankee tunes, however, this gathering featured native dances and drumming. Deer meat and smoked bluefish replaced the hot dogs and hamburgers, with headdresses more common than baseball caps.
For father and daughter tribal members Jared Swiftcloud and Kenya Moonlight, the recognition of ancient tradition is what made the event meaningful.
“This is more traditional than many other tribe powwows,” Swiftcloud said. “That’s what’s important to me, to carry on these traditions. Without these things, this culture and language, we wouldn’t be the people we are.”
Despite living outside the tribe’s reservation, the two Killingly, Conn., residents emphasized the need to maintain these historic cultural practices even within the context of a modern society.
“My generation of kids, the ones in the tribes, we’re responsible for maintaining the practice and passing it on to the next generation,” said 20-year-old Moonlight, explaining how as a student in local public schools, she continued to wear her native regalia. “You just have to handle it with grace, and see it as an opportunity to educate rather than put aside the people who might make fun of you or think you’re weird. While both acknowledged the struggles that accompany their life outside the tribe, their clothes and attitudes fit right in at the annual meeting, which included not only Narragansetts but members of other tribes, including the Pequots, Wampanoags and Shinnecocks.
Ciara Hendricks, 6, and Sophia Cushing, 4, both said they had been attending and participating in the powwow for several years.
“This is my fourth year, I think,” said Hendricks. “I danced last year too.”
With braided hair and vibrantly-colored shawls decorated with geometric shapes, the two hopped in unison, practicing for their dance performances in two of the numerous dance and competition categories included in the meeting.
Albert Sargent, a member of both the Pequot and Shinnecock tribes, was also a veteran of the event’s competition, estimating he had participated for at least 20 years. In addition to the popular fringed shirt, pants and moccasins, Sargent also sported elaborate red and white face paint, which he estimated took him less than 30 minutes to put on.
“At this point, I know where everything is going, so I’ve got it down pretty fast,” he said.
For North Kingstown residents June Webb and Jeremiah Buckenberger, however, the time-honored dances and ceremonies were completely new.
“I’ve never been to anything like this before,” said Buckenberger. “It’s amazing.”
“The amount of people here is pretty incredible too,” Webb added.
The throngs of people crowding past booths selling handmade jewelry and crafts and the long line of cars stretching down the dirt road back to Route 2 further reflected the size of the crowd.
“The parking lots filled up before the grand entry even began,” said Chester Bliss, a Narragansett working to direct traffic at the entrance of the grounds. “And there’s more people coming and coming.”
While finding parking was proving more difficult, Thomas said he was pleased with the turnout.
“This is an opportunity for us not only to share in this moment with our tribe, but with other tribes and with non-tribal members, so they can learn about our culture,” he said.
The powwow continues today, with church services at 9:30 and 11 a.m., along with additional ceremonies and celebrations. Admission is $6 for adults and $2 for children.