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    Tuesday, October 04, 2022

    Pequot Festival of Green Corn and Dance honors tradition in August

    Boys participate in the “Fancy Feather Dancers” dance at a previous Schemitzun festival. It is one of several categories of dance that take place at Schemitzun. (Photo courtesy of Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation)
    A hand-painted banner announces the festival. (Photo courtesy of Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation)
    Mashantucket Pequot Fire Keeper James David “Fire Arrow” Walker, prepares the sacred fire at a past Schemitzun festival. (Photo courtesy of Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation)
    Dancers participate in the grand entry at the beginning of the Festival of Green Corn and Dance. The festival takes place Aug. 27 and 28. (Photo by J. Chavez)
    Flags at Schemitzun. (Photo courtesy of Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation)
    Chairman Rodney Butler, left, and Treasurer Marvin Reels participate in a ceremony at a past Schemitzun festival. (Photo courtesy of Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation)
    Miss Mashantucket Royalty representatives are chosen each year to honor what it means to be a strong Pequot woman. (Photo courtesy of Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation)

    As summer wanes and the corn gets higher in the fields, the Mashantucket (Western) Pequot Tribal Nation is preparing for its late-August Festival of Green Corn and Dance, a Native American celebration of thanksgiving and the first fruits of the harvest.

    Known as Schemitzun (pronounced Ski - MET - zen), the festival is the Mashantuckets’ biggest event of the year, attracting members of neighboring tribes and offering visitors a chance to learn more about the Pequots and their history, culture, food and traditions.

    COVID forced the festival to close last year to all but tribal members, but this year’s event is expected to draw crowds from Native American tribes across New England and welcome the public back Aug. 27 and 28, rain or shine, as it has since the 1600s.

    For participants, “it’s a way for Native Americans to give thanks to the creator for our rich heritage while honoring our ancestors, warriors, veterans and elders,” says Wayne Reels, the tribal director of cultural resources and a founding member of the festival committee, which was formed in 1992.

    Reels says the festival has been downsized since its first few years in the 1990s, when thousands of Native Americans came to Connecticut from across the country and around the world for a four-day event to compete for cash prizes in dance, song and drum competitions.

    “Foxwoods Entertainment actually started the first Schemitzun and it was an event that all the top stage entertainers in Indian country came to, but it was just a musical folk festival, really,” says Reels of the early years of the festival. At the same time, a committee from the tribe was planning an actual powwow, or a sacred social gathering.

    The following year, Reels says, the powwow committee reworked the festival, billing it as “Schemitzun, a Native American World Championship of Song and Dance.”

    It was intended, he says, to reach out to all the Native people who had festivals and powwows all over the country and bring them together.

    Over the next several years, the festival and competitions grew, bringing in world-class Native American singing groups and competitive dancers. With the help of Gov. Lowell P. Weicker, the event was moved to the Hartford Civic Center, Reels says. A rodeo was added and by 1996 the prize purse had reached in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

    “We got every schoolchild in the state to come and we filled up the arena,” recalls Reels. “We wanted to give back to the people. It went on for a few years there until we moved it back here,” he says of the Mashantucket Pequot Cultural Grounds “in the heart of our community.”

    The celebration stems from the green corn ceremonies held by Native American tribes to ensure a good harvest, historian and anthropologist Eva Lutz Butler wrote in 1948.

    Butler’s work was the basis of the formation in 1965 of the Indian & Colonial Research Center, now called the Old Mystic History Center, located on Main Street in Old Mystic.

    Apparently even from the earliest times, Indians from other Tribes and Colonists enjoyed attending the various dances, Butler wrote.

    Today’s iteration offers fine Native American arts and crafts made by tribal members, including beadwork, baskets, textiles, wampum, paintings, weavings, leathers, feathers, carvings, ceremonial items, silver, regalia, T-shirts, herbal teas, books, prints and more.

    A 17th century Eastern Woodland Village exhibit offers fascinating demonstrations of traditional Pequot cultural practices—including fire-pit cooking, wampum and fish net-making, loom beadwork and basketry.

    Authentic Native American cuisine prepared by celebrated New England Native chefs is sure to satisfy every appetite, says Reels. Offerings include hearty chowders, local fish, wild game and seasonal fruit beverages prepared the old ways, along with contemporary fare such as Indian tacos, burgers, fry bread, unique desserts and more.

    The Mashantucket Pequots, a native Algonquin people, achieved federal recognition in 1983. Their reservation in southeastern Connecticut was established in 1666, almost 30 years after the tribe survived what’s known as the “Pequot massacre,” a raid by the English on a Mystic Indian village that killed 500 tribespeople, including children.

    Today, the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation owns and operates the Foxwoods Resort Casino and a variety of other enterprises, including the Lake of Isles Golf Course, Pequot Pharmaceutical Network and the Spa at Norwich Inn. The tribe is one of Connecticut’s highest taxpayers and largest employers, and has contributed billions of dollars to Connecticut through the first-of-its-kind tribal gaming revenue-sharing agreement, enacted in 1993.

    Since bringing the festival back to the reservation, Reels says it has become “the home powwow for the region,” allowing the tribe to perform many of the sacred ceremonies they couldn’t when it was bigger.

    “We’re now able to do our pipe ceremonies, the corn dance ceremonies, naming ceremonies and all the things that took place a long time ago,” says Reels, who grew up in the Narragansett Indian community in coastal South Kingstown, R.I.

    “I came here a lot in the ’60s when I was young,” says Reels of the Pequot potluck dinners he attended with his family in southeastern Connecticut. “Back then, for the Pequot side of my family, their gathering powwow was really just a potluck dinner.”

    The Narragansetts, he recalls, had a larger celebration called the August Meeting. “It started off as a dance and a gathering to keep our identity alive. It was truly a family gathering,” he recalls.

    After relocating to Connecticut, Reels says he approached the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Council about forming a powwow committee.

    “I walked in and unanimously we agreed to have it,” he recalls. “I don’t think anybody thought we’d have the scale we did. That first year it was known as one of the biggest events around, with a lot of Natives who traveled—some from the far reaches of British Columbia in Canada and others from across the map. Just the will to come across for that long of a journey to take part in it was exciting for us to see.”

    Whittling the festival down to just two days, he says, “allowed us to really focus on ourselves and our traditions.”

    There’s still plenty of dancing, he says, although instead of thousands of competitors, attendees may only see hundreds demonstrating and participating in dance ceremonies, like the grand entry, when dancers of all ages process into the festival grounds (Saturday at 6 p.m., Sunday at noon).

    “During the grand entry, dancers line up to enter the arena,” says Reels. “At that time we’ll have an honor guard, dignitaries, royalties and elders who line up with the dancers according to their category or their age.” They enter with the music of an entry song, he says, then a flag song and a victory song, to begin the dance ceremonies.

    Ceremonies include a flag-raising that honors veterans from the tribe who served, he says, “from the Pequot War to the present. … Each year we raise the flag in their memory and announce their names. This is something that’s done across the Indian world. Veterans are always thought of as high as warriors, and always honored in our way.”

    Tickets are $15 for a one-day admission pass ($10 for age 55 and up and children 6-12, free for kids 5 and under), and $25 for a weekend pass. Parking is available at the Fox Tower Hotel, Grand Pequot Tower Hotel, Great Cedar Hotel and the Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center (handicap only), with a shuttle to the event site.

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