GRAY — There was plenty of drumming, singing and dancing at the Maine Wildlife Park on Saturday as Native Americans from all over New England, along with folks interested in learning about Native American culture and heritage, gathered for the start of the annual Attean Family Pow Wow.
For the 11th year, the Maine Wildlife Park served as an ideal backdrop for the event that welcomed tribal representatives from Maine, New England and around the country.
Richard Fournier of Manchester, N.H., has emceed powwows for 34 years and said the powwow at the Maine Wildlife Park in Gray is especially meaningful to local Native Americans.
“We’re doing this for the park,” Fournier said. “We’ve been very lucky for the existence of this park and for the animals in it. As a culture, Natives are sort of like the old tree huggers, and we believe in nature and our oneness. This is the perfect way for us to be involved.”
The weekend-long gathering, named for one of the original families of the Penobscot Nation, featured two full days of dancing, craft and food vendors, music and, of course, all of the animal exhibits that the Maine Wildlife Park offers to the public from mid-April to mid-November. The event was open to the public for the usual park admission fees.
Over the years, Park Superintendent Curtis Johnson said, the weather has played a role in how well-attended the powwow is. This year, attendance seemed to be on the high side, with hundreds of people showing up to the park by early afternoon Saturday.
“This year appears to be a good year,” Curtis said. “The rest of the season has been phenomenal for us so far.”
The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife owns and operates the Maine Wildlife Park, but the state does not directly fund the park. To ensure its continued existence, the park relies heavily on admission fees, donations and fundraising efforts from organizations such as the nonprofit Friends of the Maine Wildlife Park, a sponsor for the powwow and other events throughout the summer.
“We survive off the revenues we generate,” Johnson said.
When an event like the powwow draws larger crowds than normal, the park benefits greatly from the increase in revenue from the days’ admission fees, he said.
“Events like this are huge for us,” Johnson said, “great for the animals, great for the park.”
At noon Saturday, organizers held a Grand Entry ceremony, featuring a bald eagle from the Maine Wildlife Park. Only a few powwows in the entire country include live bald eagles in their ceremonies. A repeat of the Grand Entry ceremony is scheduled for noon Sunday.
People of all ages attended the event. For some, it was their first time; others have been attending this powwow and others for years.
Such was the case for Holly Staples of Bucksport, whose husband was one of the drummers for the weekend.
“We mainly do ones here in Maine,” she said. “I like it all. I’m here from two days before to the day after. We get a sense of community here. It’s really good for people who haven’t been exposed to it to come here and feel the energy and learn a bit about our history.”
The opportunity for people to learn about Native American history was another reason emcee Fournier stressed the importance of hosting powwows.
“We are, at the moment, the forgotten minority,” he said. “We’ve spent a great many years trying to make people realize that the genocide didn’t work. We have our own spirituality, our own beliefs. We are part of this society — we’re not against it.”
He added, “Life means something, and this gathering is another way of showing that we mean something. We exist. We’re viable. We’re nothing to fear. We’re just another piece of diversity.”
The event featured the Split Feather Singers as host drum, a group of Native Americans from all over the New England area. Also performing was Joseph FireCrow, a Grammy-nominated Cheyenne flutist and recipient of several “Nammy” Awards.
A group of Native American women, Wolf Cry Singers, performed traditional songs along with Black Hawk Singers and popular drummers, Grandmother’s Tears.
Claudia Foxtree, a Taino native, craftswoman and cultural educator from the Boston area, shared her knowledge, and storyteller Kim Slow Hawk Hart entertained audiences with traditional stories and animal tales.