A dancer at a Narragansett Tribe powwow. Photo: peppergrasss

Brian Lightfoot Brown: Oldest recorded powwow in North America meets COVID-19

This year has been unusual to say the least. As 2020 has moved on with the worldwide pandemic, Native Americans are among the groups who have been the most ravaged and most overlooked.

Cultural and social gatherings have been forced into cancelations and social distanced variations. Tribes struggle to protect their communities and at-risk members of those communities. Even annual powwows are being canceled or at least done in a virtual online manner. Attending powwows during this time may seem trivial but they are the biggest chance to bring as many tribal citizens together.

Such is the case for the Narragansett Tribe of Rhode Island. This August 8-9, 2020 was slated to be their 345th annual feast of green corn, or their August Meeting Powwow. The oldest recorded powwow in North America, held in Charlestown, Rhode Island on the tribes reservation, by the old Narragansett Indian Church. This powwow used to be closed off to the general public until around the 1950s unless invited as a special guest.

Celebrating August Meeting 2020 virtually. COVID-19 has forced many large gatherings to be cancelled for the general...

Posted by Tomaquag Museum on Saturday, August 8, 2020

The actual word "powwow" comes from an English alteration of the Narragansett word "powwaw" or "pawwaw," which meant a spiritual leader. Europeans may have misinterpreted the word to mean a form of gathering, as its known today. Anyway, the Narragansett have held this August Meeting, 1 of 13 thanksgiving celebrations they honor throughout the year, on the second weekend of August and have done so since pre-contact.

In 2020, tribal leaders have decided to cancel the powwow due to safety precautions and to prevent large gatherings. This saddens many Narragansett people but health concerns are at an all time high amidst the coronavirus. The Narragansett are a group who are at risk but often find themselves swept under the rug or put on a backburner and forgotten about by the outside world.

So 2020 will not see Narragansett people coming home this weekend to spend time at the powwow, however, the idea of a virtual event online could be one way to still connect for this powwow. Several other tribes and Indigenous organizations have done this and it has been successful.

Anyone who would want to still dance in regalia or drum and sing, can still record themselves doing so and share it to the powwow event page on Facebook.

Its not the same, but it is one option to maintain this annual tradition, at least in some form. Anyone interested, go to the link: facebook.com/events/s/345th-annual-august-meeting-po/1397872270422267.

Brian Lightfoot Brown is an enrolled citizen of the Narragansett Tribe. This opinion is his own.

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