August Meeting: A Traditional Narragansett Meeting and Celebration
Essay by Lorén Spears, MsEd., Narragansett, Executive Director of Tomaquag Museum
August Meeting is the oldest recorded Native gathering in the country. In 2020, we celebrated our 345th recorded August Meeting Pow Wow and Green Corn Thanksgiving. August Meeting Pow Wow is held the weekend of the second Sunday in August and it lasts the whole weekend. It is located on the Narragansett Reservation next to the Narragansett Indian Church on Indian Church Road.1See https://rhodetour.org/items/show/297?tour=35&index=4 for information about the Church The two and one-half acres surrounding the church were the only lands that never left Narragansett communal hands.2See our essay on Detribalization for more information It is sacred to us. Our ancestors have held ceremonies on these lands since time immemorial. This is the place we call the “August Meeting Grounds” or the “Grounds” for short.
We are a visiting people. We have a tradition of gathering together and visiting with each other to celebrate the harvests and blessings in our lives. We celebrate thirteen Thanksgivings, one for each new moon. The August Meeting Pow Wow stems from our Green Corn harvest, which is the early harvest of the corn, but it is not actually green. Each Thanksgiving has a special ceremony to give thanks, visiting guests, a feast, and fun which can include games, music, dance, and fellowship. We historically visited with other tribal nations such as the Niantic, Wampanoag, Nipmuc, Shinnicock, and Iroquois Nations to name just a few. These ceremonial gatherings were the beginnings of the modern day Pow Wow.
Pow Wow comes from the Narragansett or Algonquian word Pau Wau or Medicine man or woman. In colonial times, the word was misunderstood by English colonists to mean the event or gathering rather than the person leading the ceremony. We are very spiritual people and gatherings begin with the ceremony. Today we still celebrate many of the thirteen Thanksgivings including Maple Sugar, Corn Planting, Spring Fishing (salmon, herring, etc), Strawberry, Green Bean, Green Corn, Harvest, Hunter’s, Nikkommo, Ice Fishing, and there are a few that are less common today due to conquest and colonization such as the whaling, seals, sturgeon, and other harvests. All of the summer harvest thanksgivings include the bounty from the salt waters and we call that a clambake today. If you are “in the know,” you can have clambake at the August Meeting Pow Wow!
Narragansett and other Native people travel to the August Meeting Grounds to reconnect with family, friends, and ensure our continuity. When they arrive, they set up their campsites with tents, Recreational Vehicles (RVs) and campers, or they stay with Narragansett relatives or friends in preparation of the August Meeting Pow Wow. The excitement level is high as they visit with others at School House and Deep Ponds. There is swimming, fishing, and canoeing. Everyone is looking forward to the Pow Wow.
When Saturday morning comes, people wake up to smells of bacon, venison, bluefish, johnnycakes, eggs, and other breakfast foods being cooked, mingled with the smell of oak campfire wood.3To learn more about Johnny cakes, see this recipe here and the video demonstrations from the Tomaquag Museum at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mLrPPM0O_WU, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MGlfBKPNylQ&t=3s, and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XnX6uCn11As They hear the birds chirping enthusiastically along with the Master of Ceremony (MC) saying, “testing 123, testing 123,” on the PA system. Others are greeting friends they only see on the Pow Wow Trail as they set up their vendors stands in preparation for selling their art and other goods. As the morning progresses, tourists and Native families start to wander the Pow Wow grounds visiting the vendors’ stands looking at the art, books, games, clothing, crafts, craft supplies, and foods to buy. Tall Dog’s stand has wampum with silver, Allen Hazard’s stand has traditional wampum work, and Dove Trading Post has moccasins, jewelry, beadwork, and pottery. Aztec visitors from Mexico have woven clothing. The Narragansett Economic Development Commission has a raffle for lobsters. The Narragansett Language Committee has language CDs and books for Narragansett community members, and they are selling t-shirts. There are vendors from many visiting tribal nations across North and South America.
There are food vendors, too. This is a way to ensure continuity of traditional foods and foodways. It is part of food sovereignty.4To learn more about food sovereignty, see Rhode Tour https://rhodetour.org/items/show/302?tour=35&index=9 The Hopkins stand is famous for its fresh squeezed lemonade, clambakes, and chowder. Kim’s Place has fish sandwiches, clamcakes, and the best hot wings. Sly Fox Den has corn on the cob, frog legs, salmon, and wild rice. Three Sister’s has corn, beans, and squash. Betty’s stand has Fry Bread with blueberries or Indian Tacos. The Elders tent is where you go for traditional Indian pudding, Succotash,5Visit this page for a Succotash recipe see clam and corn chowder, pies, and more. There is so much to see, smell, hear, taste, and touch. It can be sensory overload.
When the MC announces that the Grand Entry is in a half hour, the drummers warm up and all the people get ready for Grand Entry. It is like a procession or parade of the Chief Sachem, the flag bearers, the Narragansett Tribal Government, the dignitaries from visiting tribes, the Elders, adults, and youth according to dance categories.6To see the Grant Entry from the 2008 August Meeting, see this video by SwiftCoud
August meeting Pow Wow starts with the Medicineman cleansing the Dance Circle to bring positive energy to the space. This initial ceremony continues with the Chief Sachem smoking the Medicine Pipe and giving prayers to the Four Directions. During Grand Entry, the flag bearers carry in and then post the flags of the United States and the tribal governments. Next, the Chief Sachem and Tribal Council greet the dancers and honor them with the Medicine Pipe. When the ceremony is complete, the Welcome Dance is done by all. The Welcome Dance is followed by the Calumet Dance, which is done by the men and boys to honor the sacred pipe. The Medicinewoman leads a prayer in our Narragansett language. Those within the Circle introduce themselves and say what tribal nation they are from for the audience to hear. They sometimes say it in their native language.
The dancing continues with an intertribal dance, which means everybody dances! Next is a Crow Hop dance to honor the crow that brought us the corn and beans, followed by the Veteran’s Dance to honor all military Veterans. Native Americans have the highest number per capita of service in the US armed forces. We honor their service and sacrifice as they dance the first part of the song and then invite in the non-Native Veterans to join the circle of honor. The drummers speed things up, and the Fancy dancers show their moves. The MC announces the time for the Tiny Tots exhibition dance. All the little ones come out into the Dance Circle, showing the continuation of our people. They dance, some by themselves, showing what they learned from their moms and dads, sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles, grandparents and cousins. They learn from all their relations. Tots that are too small to stand yet dance with their moms or dads to feel the rhythm and hear the music of their people. Other Tots that are afraid because of the large crowd of spectators hold a parent’s hand. When they are through, they are so proud!
Pow Wows have a variety of dance categories. For August Meeting, the Tiny Tots category is for children aged 5 and under. The Children’s category is for ages 6 to 12. The Teen category is from age 13 to 17. The Adult category is 18 to 49 years old, and Golden Age is from age 50 and above. For women and girls, there are Traditional, Eastern Blanket, Fancy, and Jingle Dress dance categories. For men there are Eastern War, Northern Traditional, Grass, and Fancy dances.
Each dance category has its own rules and special meaning. The dances at Pow Wow come from all over Indian Country. These dances have blended together to make the tapestry of dance we see today. Eastern Blanket dance comes from our traditional courtship ceremony. At Pow Wow, the women and girls are demonstrating the beauty and grace of this dance with the blanket swirling around their bodies. Today, it is still performed as part of wedding ceremonies. Fancy Shawl is often thought of as a butterfly dance as the women are wearing beautiful regalia with bright colored shawls with dazzling fringe, making them look like butterflies. It is a sight to behold. The Jingle Dress dance comes from an Ojibway healing ceremony. The dress has jingles at the edges that make noise when the woman wearing it dances. The dance provides harmony, beauty, and wellness for the dancers and those who are blessed to witness the grace in motion.
For men’s dances, there is Eastern War, which showcases the movements of warriors – battle, the sneak up, and victory. Northern Traditional regalia has bustles, Southern Traditional has small bustles, Eastern traditional has no bustles and is often made of deerskin. “Traditional” means that the dance stems from your original dance style of your particular tribe or region.7To see Fancy dancers with bustles, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m4Oae_613jw Grass dance comes from a ceremony done by the nations on the northern plains. Fancy dancers are spectacular! The gymnastics, fancy steps, and fast beat are awe-inspiring!
Each year, there are also social dances such as the Two Step, Rabbit Dance, Stomp Dance, Robin Dance, and many other old time dances, but you need to stay into the evening to see those. There is a lot of fun to be had by all.
August Meeting Pow Wow today is open to the public. It allows visitors outside of the participating tribes to gain a better understanding of our culture, traditions, history, and spirituality through music, dance, art, food and social interaction with our people. The Pow Wow is two days long and includes Church services at the Narragansett Indian Church, competition dancing, vendors, an oral history presentation by the Tribal oral historian, Naming ceremonies, Memorial dances, and much more. Come learn for yourself by visiting the August Meeting Pow Wow the weekend of the second Sunday in August.8Visit powwows.com to find a pow wow near you
Pow Wow: a Native American tribal gathering originating from traditional thanksgiving ceremonies. It includes ceremony, drumming, dance, traditional and contemporary foods and traditional and contemporary arts vendors
Reservation: an Indian reservation is an area of land legally designated and managed by a federally recognized Indian tribe under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs
Communal: in this case, land that is shared by all of the members of the community for their common use
Immemorial: from the distant past, beyond known memory or recorded history
Nikkommo: one of the thirteen thanksgivings that represents a lunar moon cycle. It includes the community coming together in celebration. It starts with a ceremony to give thanks and a give-away to show your gratitude and thankfulness for your blessings and to ensure all within the community have what they need. It continues with a feast followed by games, music, dance, and socializing. Please note there are dances and music that are part of the ceremony and different music and dances for socializing
Conquest: taking control over a place and subjugating the people in that place by force, usually through military force
Colonization: the act of settling and gaining control over an area and the peoples that already occupy that area
Johnnycakes: a small cake made from white flint corn originally known as a “journeycake” as it was an easy food to bring on a journey. It is browned and crispy on the outside and soft and creamy on the inside. Often served with maple syrup or covered in a meat or fish filled gravy or sauce
Wampum: adornment or beads made from the whelk or quahog shells. It is used as adornment in belts, headbands, armbands and leg garters, and jewelry. It is used in ceremony, to document history, confirm treaties, call leaders to council and, for a short period of colonial history, it was used as money
Foodways: traditional hunting, fishing, harvesting of wild edibles and agricultural crops. It includes the creation of the tools and resources needed for hunting, fishing, and harvesting as well as for storage, preserving and cooking
Food sovereignty: a nationwide initiative to ensure traditional foodways, access, food security, sustainability, health and wellness of Indigenous peoples through sustainable agriculture, ecological economic development, environmental justice and maintaining self sufficiency and sovereignty
Indian Pudding: a baked cornmeal pudding that incorporates European adaptations of molasses, milk, and eggs to make a custard. It is a rich, thick textured pudding often served with vanilla ice cream. It is an adaptation of nasaump, a cornmeal mush or cereal that can be eaten with added fresh or dried fruits, nuts, maple syrup, gravies other add-ins or toppings
Succotash: a corn and bean dish that utilized the whole corn, the cream of the corn and shelled, pink, kidney or lima beans depending on the community
Sachem: the leader
Per Capita: for each person by population
Indian Country: is a term used to refer to the lands that now make up the United States. It sometimes refers to all of North America and South America, reminding immigrants that that is Indigenous land. People today are starting to recognize they are on occupied lands by stating a Land Acknowledgement
Regalia: a term used for Native American traditional clothing and pow wow dress or clothing. It derives from the English term regalia meaning royalty or royal dress
Ojibway: is an Algonquian people originally located near Great Lakes but pushed westward during conquest and colonization. It can be also spelled Ojibwe, Ojibwa, and the people are also known as Chippewa and Anishinaabe
Bustles: the Native American bustle is a traditional part of a man’s regalia worn during a pow wow and originates from the Plains region of the United States. In today’s pow wows, the it can be made of eagle or hawk feathers attached to a board and worn on the back
Oral History: In this case, it is history passed down generationally through oration, storytelling and stated memories. Native American people taught their children, shared their knowledge, and delivered the news orally.
Naming Ceremony: A ceremony where someone is given their traditional name usually in their language. Native cultures allow for more than one name in a lifetime, so you can earn a different name. During conquest and colonization, it was against the law to be named in your Indigenous language on your birth certificate, so naming ceremonies became a way to ensure your rightful name even if you were named in English on your birth certificate. Today we reclaim the right to name our children in our language
Why do you think ceremonies and celebrations that include traditional dance, dress, storytelling, and food are important for Indigenous people?
When the author writes about the Tiny Tots, she states, “all the little ones come out into the Dance Circle, showing the continuation of our people.” What does the author mean by “showing the continuation of our people”? What other aspects of August Meeting demonstrate this continuation?
Are there traditions or ceremonies that your family celebrates or participates in? If yes, what are they? What special dances, music, clothing, or food are a part of those traditions?
- 1See https://rhodetour.org/items/show/297?tour=35&index=4 for information about the Church
- 4To learn more about food sovereignty, see Rhode Tour https://rhodetour.org/items/show/302?tour=35&index=9
- 6To see the Grant Entry from the 2008 August Meeting, see this video by SwiftCoud
- 7To see Fancy dancers with bustles, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m4Oae_613jw
- 8Visit powwows.com to find a pow wow near you