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Dancers, Artists, and Activists Reclaim Space at the First United Lenape Nations Pow Wow

Lenape community members, in partnership with Park Avenue Armory, host the first Lenape pow wow in Manhattan since their forced displacement in the 1700s.

The First United Lenape Nations Pow Wow & Standing Ground Symposium. (All images © Da Ping Luo)

On Sunday, November 18, members of the Lenape community, in collaboration with the Park Avenue Armory, hosted the inaugural United Lenape Nations Pow Wow and Standing Ground Symposium in New York City. It was the first such gathering on the island of Mannahatta — the Lenape word from which Manhattan is derived — since Dutch and English settlers displaced the Lenape people from their ancestral homeland in the 1700s.

Pow wow is held in numerous forms across North America today, providing a space for Indigenous and non-indigenous people alike to build community through dance, song, and forum. The 2018 United Lenape Nations Pow Wow is unique in that it also celebrates a homecoming, with the first conglomeration of diasporic Lenape leaders on Lenapehoking — the region now known as the mid-Atlantic United States — aiming to engage a diverse audience for the occasion.

Hosted in the Park Avenue Armory’s Wade Thompson Drill Hall, in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, the day’s festivities were in proximity to many leading arts institutions that have benefitted from Indigenous dispossession and, in some cases, Indigenous plundering, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim, and the Frick Collection.

(image © Da Ping Luo)

Hundreds of people attended the historic event, filling the hall with kinetic energy before the program began. In anticipation of the opening Grand Entry, dancers in elaborate regalia lined up at the edge of the arena. Spectators crowded around with cameras out and necks stretched to see what would follow. As the room filled with the pounding of drums — played by the Silvercloud Singers, Young Blood Singers, and Red Blanket Singers — the dancers began moving across the floor, with heads nodding and feet stepping in rhythm to the beat. Led by a Native American color guard and a collective of Indigenous leaders carrying Native nations’ flags and eagle staffs, the procession was followed by Lenape elders, pow wow royalty, and dozens of dancers of all ages, all wearing colorful regalia unique to their regions and dance styles, some with intricate beadwork.

(image © Da Ping Luo)

Emotions were high as Lenape community member, Brent Stonefish, provided the invocation, praying for the wellbeing of everyone present. As he addressed the audience, he paused, saying, “Forgive me for being overwhelmed, it feels good to be home.”

Head female dancer, Beedoskah Stonefish, who is from the Ottawa, Chippewa, Delaware, and Potawatomi nations, started the day’s dancing with a fancy shawl solo, with rainbow-colored ribbons from her shawl flying around her body as she spun. Head male dancer, George Stonefish Bearskin, who is a member of the Delaware nation and Pueblo of Sandia, danced a men’s traditional two stop solo, stomping to the beat of the drums as he circled the floor.

(image © Da Ping Luo)

The day’s performers also included the Aztec/Conchero/Mexica dance group Kalpulli Huehutlahtolli, the Kasibahagua Taino Cultural Society, and critically acclaimed Inuit throat singer, Tanya Tagaq.

The Standing Ground Symposium featured lectures and panels from a star-studded roster of activists and artists. Winona LaDuke, an Anishinaabe thinker and activist, spoke about the extraction industry’s violence against indigenous lands; Steven Newcomb, a Shawnee and Lenape scholar, addressed the impacts of the Doctrine of Discovery; and Chief Vincent Mann, from the Ramapough Lenape Nation, reflected on historical trespasses made against his people by settler-colonialism. To Brooklyn and Back: A Mohawk Journey, a documentary written and directed by Mohawk filmmaker Reaghan Tarbell, was also screened throughout the day.

The symposium took place in the Armory’s “historic rooms”, where portraits of some of America’s colonizers hang, looming over the speakers and attendees. Many times, I found myself struck by this physical embodiment of forces that have oppressed Native peoples over time, and the irony of such a setting for a pow wow. I couldn’t help but wonder what those looming faces would say about the event — a fleeting thought amidst the powerful displays of Indigenous disruption within the settler-colonial environment.

(image © Da Ping Luo)

Throughout the day, I questioned if the many non-indigenous attendees truly understood the significance of the occasion. I grappled with the simultaneous reclamation of space by Native peoples and the awkward and sometimes tense interactions between the mix of attendees. Ultimately, I found solace in the presence of non-indigenous people, given that they were spending time and money — adult tickets were priced at $25 — to learn about Indigenous peoples and our resistance to a society determined to erase our presence.

The second grand entry ushered in the end of the day. Competition dances — including fancy shawl, jingle dance, men’s and women’s traditional, men’s fancy, and smoke dance for all age groups — continued into this second half. The high pitch of jingles heard throughout women’s jingle, and the dynamic performances of men’s fancy as each dancer jumped higher and spun faster to the beat all an embodiment of the resilience of these dance traditions. Judges scrutinized the dancers, sometimes calling for one more song in order to catch each performer’s unique styles. Audience members gasped at each misstep and cheered excitedly throughout.

(image © Da Ping Luo)

It was at the end of the evening, when the last of the vendors were packing up their stands of jewelry, arts, and crafts. Much of the crowd had left for the day. I observed the dancers laugh and catch up with each other before the judges awarded prizes. Children ran around the stadium as the sound of jingles from the dancer’s regalia sounded in the air. I felt blessed to witness fellow Indigenous people, with love and intentionality, carve out spaces for ourselves in a place that tries so hard to deny us that right. The pow wow served as an always timely reminder to not only recognize but also to show up for the original inhabitants of this land, as we continue doing what we have always done.

(image © Da Ping Luo)
(image © Da Ping Luo)
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