The Native Americans of New York- Pow Wow Story

New York, USA

New York City! The very name evokes any number of images – the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, the United Nations, the former Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, a variety of high-end brands and boutiques near Fifth Avenue, the popular theatres along Broadway and Times Square, where the ball drops to usher in each new year. But on that warm July morning, I wasn’t anywhere around these iconic tourist hotspots.

I was sitting, instead, on a foot-high square made of tightly wrapped hay in a small park adjoining a museum in Queens, one of the five Boroughs that make up New York City. The bales of hay, arranged in a circle, had been placed there for people to sit on. Behind me, along the park’s perimeter were numerous tented stalls selling food and handicrafts. In front was the circular patch on which the Pow Wow, an annual celebration of ancient Native American traditions, was going to take place.

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The original inhabitants of the area over which the city sprawls today were the American Indian tribes from whom the Dutch explorers, the first Europeans to land on this territory, would buy the island of Manhattan, only to have it taken over subsequently by the British.

To come back to the Pow Wow, it is a cultural gathering of the local tribes which became popular in the late 1800s. By that time, any authority they may have wielded over the area had been usurped by the European settlers who had landed on their shores and confiscated their lands. Efforts by the latter were being made at the time to encourage the assimilation of the native tribes with the new population, failing which they would be isolated in remote reservations. Realising that their ancient traditions were in danger of being marginalised, even driven to extinction, the Native Americans began organising regular gatherings to celebrate their culture through dance. Carrying forward these celebrations from the past are the contemporary Pow Wows – primarily, dance contests in which Native Americans from different tribes take time off from their regular chores to participate, wearing splendidly colourful costumes and headdresses. It is an occasion devoted to showcasing their rich culture.

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“Where did you get that bolo tie?” a female voice suddenly asked, interrupting my reverie.

Startled out of my musings on the past, I turned to look at the young woman in blue jeans and simple white top sitting beside me on the stack of hay. Her straight hair framed an oval face out of which dark eyes looked at me with genuine interest. I noticed the iPad in her hand.

“My name is Elise,” she said, introducing herself.

I told her that during a recent visit to the southern city of Albuquerque I had bought the bolo tie – a Native American ornament worn around the neck that consists of a black string from which a metal piece, whose design is unique to each tribe, is suspended.

Elise volunteered that she was setting up a website to help Native American craftsmen sell their wares and would need my e-mail ID to send me all the relevant information. As I gave it to her, I mentioned that this was the very first Pow Wow I was attending.

Elise quickly filled me on the details of the celebration. “The dancers’ regalia happen to be among the most powerful symbols of their tribal identity,” she explained.

Looking around, I noticed people getting ready and putting on their colourful dance costumes in combinations of green and white or red and blue, along with their feathered headdresses.

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The Pow Wow started off with what was apparently called “the grand entrance”. Tribal leaders entered the arena carrying flags, followed by a group of almost hundred men, women and children, each in colourful costumes representing their respective tribes. The group walked slowly to the sound of drumbeats and stood in a kind of semi-circle in front of the crowd which had been patiently awaiting its arrival.

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The performer standing nearest my seat was a young woman in a yellow skirt ending just above the ankle and black moccasins. Next to her, wearing a pink dress, with her hair neatly pulled back in pigtails, stood her little daughter, barely three feet tall. Her hand nervously clasped her mother’s. Both their dresses were adorned with rows of small one inch-long metal cones that jingled as they moved.

As the performances began, I observed that several of the dances depicted the movements of animals and birds. The movements of the popular shawl dance, in particular, caught my eye. The women performing it wore multi-coloured fringed shawls that resembled the wide-spanned wings of a soaring eagle as they raised their arms.

Pow Vow story

Next came the jingle dance. The mother and daughter standing in front of me started the routine, moving away to join the others. The woman, hands on her hip, raised one foot and skipped ahead, the metal cones on her skirt jingling to mark her movements. Looking at her mother intently to pick up her movements, the little girl tried to imitate her. In the process, she stumbled and lurched forward, but for her mother’s restraining hand on her shoulder. Soon, the child was back following the rhythm of the dance. I will always cherish this memory of a mother teaching her daughter an ancient dance.

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During one of the breaks between the performances, I followed Elise’s advice and went off to check out the variety of Native American handicrafts being sold in the stalls. There was a big crowd at the stall selling silver and turquoise jewellery from the Navajo tribe, but I was keen on trying some Native American Bannock Bread. As the server at the stall explained, this kind of bread, made from oats, had been the local tribes’ staple diet long before the European settlers landed on these shores. The size of a roti, the kind I was familiar with growing up in India, but almost an inch thick, the bread was topped off with cooked black beans, onion slices and grated cheese. I stood there enjoying my piece of Bannock, allowing my gaze to wander to the circular grass arena, where the woman and her daughter were practising the moves for the jingle dance. With one tiny hand on her hip and the other clutching her mother’s skirt, the child was diligently following her mother’s steps. It was a poignant moment, witnessing an ancient tradition being handed down from one generation to the next.

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When the time arrived for me to leave, Elsie came up to ask if I’d enjoyed the experience.

I told her that I had and accepted the flyer she handed me, containing information about the organisation she represented. She also offered to add my name to their mailing list so that I could be updated about their forthcoming cultural events in an area close to Times Square and Broadway – a very central part of Manhattan.

I commented that this busy area of Times Square was easy to get to from most parts of the city.

Elise looked at me quietly and asked, “Do you know where Broadway began?”

I replied that I knew it as a main thoroughfare beginning in the lower part of Manhattan and snaking all the way to the top of the island.

She chucked and said, “Let me tell you a little story.”

It transpired that when the Algonquin Indian tribe lived here in the 1600s, they would use a wide mud trail that started from Lower Manhattan and ended at the top of the island which, at the time, consisted mostly of farmland. This was known as the Wickqeuasgeck Trail. The word, “Manhattan”, was, in fact, an Indian word, which meant “hilly land”.

Since I knew a little bit about the city where I had lived for many years, I volunteered, “In 1626, the Dutch bought the island of Manhattan from the native Indians and named the city New Amsterdam, didn’t they?”

“They did – and renamed the trail Heere Straat, which meant ‘gentleman’s street’,” Elise added.

She went on to say that this was more popularly known by its nickname, Breede Wegh, because it was a wide road. 

“But the Dutch didn’t last long,” I quipped.

“No, they didn’t, did they?” Elise said with a smile. “The British took the place over from the Dutch in 1664 and named it New York in honour of the Duke of York.  Then they looked at Breede Wegh and renamed it Broadway.”

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My mind was racing with thoughts of what happened just a few years prior to 1664 half way around the world. It was 1615 when Sir Thomas Roe visited the court of Emperor Jahangir as the ambassador of the King of England. And Emperor Jahangir granted permission for the British to set up trading posts in Surat. The beginnings of the East India Company which would later replace Mughlai rule with the rule of the British.

Memories of the bustling road of Broadway flooded my mind, the shining lights around Times Square. How many times had I taken this oft-frequented road, famous as the city’s theatre district, without being aware of these details of its past! It was to Elise, a stranger I had met quite by chance, that I owed a debt of gratitude, as I looked forward to exploring this vibrant city from a perspective I had never contemplated before, a city where I have lived for the past twenty eight years.

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A city which is known for fast cars, skyscrapers, vibrant nightlife and city glitterati etc. Here is the unique story which makes us wonder about the rich history , America has. To know more about New York and things to do out there , check out to the New York City Guide .

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Comments

  1. Emily

    Biswa,

    First of all I wanted to say that you’re a beautiful writer and that I thoroughly enjoyed reading about the Native Americans of NY.

    I had NO idea that there was so much history behind Manhattan. It puts a smile on my face knowing that the Native Americans are keeping the tradition alive, one generation at a time!

    I have only thought of New York as a big city, with big city things to do… Now I realize it is so much more!

  2. Anda

    What a beautiful celebration to attend! It’s not very often that you’ll stumble upon a Native American gathering like this. I had no idea that the word “Manhattan”, was in fact an Indian word. How interesting is that!

  3. Jane Dempster-Smith

    What an interesting article. We first came about a Pow Wow when we were in Texas last year in Fredricksburg. This would be something that I would really like to see. I enjoyed seeing your photos. I am so pleased that their traditions are being kept alive.

  4. Amar Singh

    I have just got back from nyc and must say if I had read this post before would have tried to find dates when I could experience this amazing atmosphere and not the so traditional tourist aspects of nyc. I am fascinated by the traditions of the native Indians and really want to visit and see how they live and practice some of these ancient traditions. The jungle dance seems to be very entertaining I must say and my daughter would have loved it. Wouldn’t have expected this in the heart of queens. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Parnashree Devi

    This is quite enriching as I had no idea about it until I read this article. Pow Wow celebration is somehow similar to our Indian tribal festivals. Its so interesting how communities and Native Americans trying to preserve their cultural heritage. Loved it.

  6. Amrita

    I would usually not associate New York with such a colourful cultural festival. This is such an interesting festival and I loved the way Biswa spun the story. And Debjani, you know how much I am fond of festivals! Loved this article.

  7. Kavita Favelle

    Really enjoyed reading your evocative post about attending the New York pow wow. Fascinating to read about the history and what is celebrated at the event. I also felt your connection between the experience of both Indians from India and native Americans at the hands of Europeans was very appropriate and thought-provoking.

  8. Daniel

    What an interesting story I knew nothing about! I’m so glad I came across this article and now, I definitely want to experience this. I had no clue that “Manhattan”, was actually an Indian word.

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