Drumming up a crowd

Aug 11, 2014

First Pocumtuck Homelands Festival new draw with Turners Falls Block Party

Recorder Staff
Sunday, August 3, 2014

  • The Medicine Mammal singers of Wendell perform at the Pocumtuck Homelands Festival at Unity Park in Turners Falls on Saturday.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell
(Published in print: Monday, August 4, 2014)

TURNERS FALLS — Pounding out a steady rhythm on the large, hide-covered drums in front of them, three men began to chant in unison, drawing out the spirit of their collective Native American heritage. A few feet away, a pair of woman danced to the beats with small steps, paying little attention to anything but the music.

Those men, whose heritage includes membership in the Ojibwe, Apache, Cherokee, Choctaw and Cheyenne tribes, are members of the Boston-based traditional drumming group Urban Thunder and on Saturday they performed before a crowd of onlookers, many of them of native heritage themselves, at the first Pocumtuck Homelands Festival.

The festival took place on the riverbank in Turners Falls, and was planned in collaboration with Turners Falls RiverCulture as an extension of the annual Block Party, which was held on Avenue A and featured music, vendors and food. It’s goal was to bring a Native American presence to the event.

In addition to Urban Thunder, the event’s musical entertainment included flute-maker and musician Hawk Henries, the Medicine Mammal Singers and the Visioning B.E.A.R. Singers. Numerous vendors joined the musicians to sell traditional Native American arts, crafts, instruments and apparel.

“We went from a booth to a festival in less than one year,” said Joe Graveline, of the Nolumbeka Project, a local nonprofit dedicated to preserving the history of Native Americans in New England that organized the event. “It was a lot of work, but we tapped into our talent reserves and connected with groups from our old People’s Harvest events, which was similar to this one.”

Graveline said the festival’s format, which differs from the traditional Pow Wow gatherings at which Native American tribes usually come together, gives the organization more flexibility to connect with people outside their own culture and to focus more on the artists and musicians.

“This is a good first event. A lot of people came out and took a chance with us, and we’re humbled by it,” Graveline said.

According to Graveline, the site of the festival was a historical gathering point for Native American tribes centuries ago, before European settlers set up fishing operations along the river and ended their traditional ways of life.

“It’s good to have people from other tribes gathering here for the first time in over 300 years,” Graveline said.

He also noted that the presence of the festival is a good sign that the reconciliation between the Native Americans and non-Native American people in Turners Falls, which began in 2004 to help mend bitter feelings and wounds in the town that remain from the raid carried out by Captain William Turner in 1676, is still going strong.

The town is named after the captain.

Strong Oak LeFebvre, a member of Visioning B.E.A.R., a local Native American advocacy group in Greenfield that works to prevent intertribal violence, agreed with Graveline’s assessment.

“It’s really nice to have a Native American prescence, especially in Turners Falls, where all this reconciliation has been going on, and at the Block Party,” LeFebvre said. “And it’s all connected to the sustainability stuff that’s going on around here. It really pulls it all together.”

Turners Falls resident and Mohawk tribe member Eric Millett, whose tribal name is White Wolf, said he thinks the festival is a good way for members of Native American tribes to share their culture with other tribes and people.

“It’s good to share culture,” Millett said. “Each has different ways of living.”

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