NORTH STONINGTON, Conn. – In 1675, the colony of Connecticut passed a series of laws governing the Pequot Indians, including prohibitions against non-Christian forms of worship.
”That whosoever shall expose or speake against the onely living & true God, the creator & ruler of all things, shall be brought to some English court to be punished as the nature of the offence may require; That whosever shall powau or use witchcraft or any worship to the divill or any fals god all be convented & punished,” the law said.
The ban didn’t stop the tribe from holding pow wows, but they were low-profile affairs and in later years they were conflated with a religious meeting on the fourth Sunday of July.
These days, the event takes place on Saturday and Sunday of the fourth weekend in July and includes annual tribal elections on Saturday; a Sunday prayer meeting, which is a traditional meeting with the drum, singers and religious ceremonies led by Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation Chief Roy Sebastian; and a pow wow in the afternoon. The pow wow attracts people from tribes all over the Northeast, attracting between 500 and 1,000 people.
”The pow wow is fashioned after the fourth Sunday meetings, which have been in existence since the 1800s. Because of the laws in the state of Connecticut when our people could not gather, members met quietly on the reservation and basically didn’t announce the pow wow in order to prevent the authorities from stopping them from congregating. The event is to discuss tribal business and also to celebrate the Great Spirit and be together with other tribes,” said Marcia Flowers, a former tribal chairman.
The EPTN’s pow wow is still a low-key, but exuberant, affair. It is free, noncommercial, vendor-free and noncompetitive. The tribe doesn’t announce the event in the pow wow lists and people still learn about it by word of mouth.
”We do a traditional pow wow. We serve the meal to all the tribes and people that attend. We keep the sacred fire going,” Flowers said.
The pow wow has the look and feel of a huge family picnic.
”We try to keep it relaxed. We’ve had tribes come from all over with a great mixture of different cultures,” said Agnes Cunha, another former tribal chairman and council member.
The modern pow wow still maintains some important elements of the historic gathering, said tribal chairman Lewis Randall.
”It’s truly spiritual – it was the hunting season and the sharing of food and making sure each one was taken care of – that was one of the main functions of getting together; and also the spiritual part of the ceremonies, the great entry, the drums and singers and the emotions behind all that,” Randall said.
The pow wow takes place on the tribe’s 225-acre reservation, which the colonial government established as the tribe’s land base in 1683. It is the oldest reservation in the country that has been continuously occupied by the descendants of the original indigenous people who populated the area prior to European contact.
Being a coastal tribe, clam chowder is standard fare at the EPTN’s pow wow.
”We are known for our quahogs. They were a big commodity for us historically. They were used as money exchange as well as a food product, and we used every part of the quahog, and that’s a tradition we’ve kept up,” Flowers said.
The tribe’s petition for federal recognition documents an Indian church in nearby Rhode Island that was attended by Pequots, Narragansetts, Mohegans and Wampanoags.
”The church was a way to bring all the tribes in the area together for spiritual ceremonies, but these gatherings were also an opportunity for our young men and women to meet, which created the intertribal marriages,” Flowers said.
Some things never change.
Natasha Gambrell, a 14-year-old dancer who specializes in the Eastern Blanket Dance, explained the dance’s symbolism.
”All my ancestors used to do the Eastern Blanket Dance. Basically, it shows the coming out of the butterfly. The first steps are a woman in a cocoon and as she gets older and matures, she shows her blanket more and is trying to attract a husband; and at the end, she puts her blanket down if they’re married, or they cover themselves up; and if you’re not married, the person will grab you and I guess it’s like, ‘Will you marry me?”’ Gambrell said.