Mohegan - For 82-year-old June Sperry of Middletown, known among the Mohegan Indians as "Full Moon," the annual Wigwam Festival at Fort Shantok is a time to reconnect with family and tribal culture.
"This is the highlight of the year," Sperry said Saturday, dressed in traditional garb on the first day of a festival that concludes today. "It's just a feeling of home."
Kevin Fields of the Ramapough Lenape tribe in New Jersey said Indians from all over the country attend the Wigwam Festival, which is one of the biggest in New England now that the Mashantucket Pequots have downsized their Schemitzun Festival, scheduled next weekend.
"It's a good gathering to see friends," Fields said.
Fields didn't participate in the traditional Indian dances that go on most of the day until a few years ago, when his mother died and he discovered a sudden urge to reconnect with his culture.
"I feel her inside me - inside the soul," the 52-year-old Fields said. "I'm with her when I dance."
Crystal McNicol-Eleazor of Canterbury, a Mohegan Indian whose 3-year-old daughter Tatianna has been dancing at the festival since she could walk, said the event is both a celebration of her culture and a way to reach out to people who might not understand native ways.
"Everybody knows Mohegan Sun (casino); they don't know the Mohegan Indians," she said. "This gives them a chance to come and see what we're really about."
McNicol-Eleazor's cousin, Lena Johnson of Voluntown, said she spent weeks putting together her costume for the big day.
"I pulled a couple all-nighters to get it done," she said.
Throughout the day, a sacred fire burned inside a large tented area, where observers could enjoy Indian dances performed in colorful regalia festooned with bells and feathers, hear traditional drumming and experience the throaty singing of a powwow.
Many of the participants take lessons to learn the traditional dances, and tribes from all around the area will be competing for prizes today. No matter how skillful a dancer, however, most everyone is expected to participate - from babies to the elderly.
"You don't need any lessons," said the 82-year-old Sperry. "You're just born dancing."
Outside the tent, on the Fort Shantok grounds where small Mohegan graveyards could be seen nearby, about two dozen vendors sold moccasins, dolls, dresses, jewelry, blankets, walking canes, T-shirts and other items to the several hundred people in attendance. Another area was set aside for food sales, where advertised fare included frog legs, smoked mussels, wild bluefish, corn cakes, sassafras tea and blueberry dumplings.
Attendance was down from last year at the free-admission event, according to longtime visitors, but the threatening skies likely kept many away who will decide to chance it from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. today, when sunshine is expected to prevail.
Mohegans say the festival - or something like it, at least - has likely gone on for centuries, perhaps associated with the corn harvest, a critical crop that tribal members could grind up and store for use in the brutal winter months.
"It helps us feel attached," said Sperry, who has been attending the annual Mohegan festival ever since she can remember. "We're always attached to this ground."