Relay: Woodsmoke and Sage

I went to cross over from “the Hamptons” into the Shinnecock Nation
Arvel Bird playing violin at the Shinnecock Powwow Joanne Pilgrim photos

Lots of people went to Southampton over Labor Day weekend to do lots of things, but I went to cross over from “the Hamptons” into the Shinnecock Nation, which was hosting peoples of many tribes, and all kinds of visitors, for its annual powwow. 

It smelled of woodsmoke and sage. Walking slowly around the grounds, the sound of anklebone jingle bells swelled and faded as dancers behind me approached and passed. The vendors sold Shinnecock clams, Wampanoan frybread, Aztec tacos, and Mexican-style corn, mixing and matching cultures.

My heart set to the drumbeats, as it always does, the moment I arrived. 

Preteen friends in powwow garb hurried through the gates into the dancers’ area behind the stage. Their footsteps, without effort, fell onto the soft ground in that circular, staccato native dance, in sync with the drums. If you’ve seen it, you’ll know just what I mean; it’s a step at once grounded and skittery, like the way some small animals move through the woods, a connection and light touch upon the earth, the push and pull of a magnet.

On stage the M.C. welcomed dancers and drummers representing different tribes, moving through their traditions, enacting stories, marking the wheel of life, honoring the Great Spirit.

A seagull flew diagonally across the field of clouds overhead as Arvel Bird, a composer and performer, stood front and center with flutes and electric violin. The wind, rising, rustled branches of the tall trees, livening the background of green. “The wind spirits are waking,” he said. Before playing a song from his “Animal Totems” CD he talked about the message a young hawk trying to fly has for us in its example of determination and fortitude.

I left before the Grand Entry lineup of all the dancers dressed in colorful ceremonial clothes, but stopped to buy an Arvel Bird CD. I was looking forward to putting it on at home whenever I need a breath of life, an elevation of spirit.

In the parking lot, the hatchback of his minivan raised open, the man who had earlier sat eating barbecue fresh from the fire was adjusting his full regalia, a spread of long dappled feathers blossoming from his back like the mouth of an anemone. 

The moon was up, almost full; enough light lingered for me to see the shine of the blue bay at the end of the lane. I turned right, toward the highway, and back into the fray.

When I got home the tree frogs and cicadas were making their own music, the steady rolling chirrupy voice of one chorus overlaid with the 1-2-3 rhythmic saw-buzz of the other. 

From across the street and through the woods came the sharp sounds of an edgy band, one of five playing at a party at the cold glass-and-iron trophy house built by the Euro-rich neighbor of a friend. 

The night before, drawn by the sounds of a party, the young people at her house went over to the neighbors’ to see what was going on. There were colored lights shining into the woods, music, fabulous guests.

One of the visitors remarked upon the neighbor’s house, and on the scene. A native Spanish speaker, the wealthy owner waved his hand. “All this,” he said, “I don’t know why.” 

Neither do I. But for it, the East End has been transformed, a heavy imprint on the quiet interconnected waterways, woods, fields, and skyways that the powwow dancing celebrates.


Joanne Pilgrim is an associate editor at The Star.

Joanne Pilgrim
Joanne Pilgrim