Pocumtuck Homelands Festival considers how history ‘ties together’

By BELLA LEVAVI and JULIAN MENDOZA

Staff Writers

Published: 08-06-2023 4:20 PM

TURNERS FALLS — Organizers of the Pocumtuck Homelands Festival celebrated a decade of bringing people together to learn about Native American culture and history over the weekend.

The 10th annual festival, put on by the Nolumbeka Project with help from RiverCulture, reprises the 12,000-plus-year tradition of Indigenous peoples from all over the Northeastern United States gathering at the site, according to event coordinator Diane Dix. Organizers continued this tradition by fostering a feeling of togetherness to help people heal from a history of violence and tension between tribal and non-tribal peoples that impeded such congregations.

Not only is the site of the festival significant as a historical gathering place for Indigenous tribes, but it is also held across the river from the site of the Great Falls Massacre of May 19, 1676. The incident is considered to be the turning point of King Philip’s War, when 300 women, children and elders were killed during an attack by Capt. William Turner and colonial militiamen.

Today, the Pocumtuck Homelands Festival brings together a lineup of historians, storytellers and musicians, as well as more than 30 vendors and artisans selling a variety of goods relating to Native American culture.

“Usually, I have to travel many hours to be with the Native community, and I’m seeing a lot of friends and acquaintances here,” said Jennifer Lee, who sits on the Nolumbeka Project’s board of directors. “There’s a lot of love and camaraderie. A lot of these people … wherever we are is my home.”

Lee said the guest speakers drew the most interest of any facet of the festival. She highlighted Mohawk elder and spiritual leader Tom Porter as particularly captivating.

“Tom Porter is a gem,” she said. “He’s really from tradition and cultural knowledge, and he’s so welcoming to everybody.”

Evan Pritchard, founder of the national Center for Algonquin Culture, led a talk titled “Ancient Places of Enduring Interest in Western Massachusetts.” Pritchard, who traces his lineage to the Mi’kmaq tribe, shared with an audience how Algonquin and Mahican people were taught Christianity by missionary John Sergeant.

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According to Pritchard, Sergeant taught the Indigenous peoples Christian ceremonies in Stockbridge. In return, they taught him about their own ceremonies.

For example, one ceremony involved displaying a deer that had been killed on a hunt, setting it up to make it look alive again. The deer would then be shared with the community, which Pritchard described as being “similar to a sacrificial lamb.”

Sergeant asked the tribes, “Where did you learn this little piece of religion?” The Native Americans explained a man, who was so powerful he could control volcanoes, came from above. He gave them snowshoes and shared many teachings with them. He married one of their women and had two children before rising up and leaving through the smoke hole of their home.

“This is just a story,” Pritchard noted. “But this is a kind of biblical event that happened in Massachusetts.”

Another story Pritchard told involved Sergeant meeting with two chiefs from neighboring settlements that were 14 miles apart. They met in the middle, near where Routes 41 and 7 meet today. Pritchard refers to the routes as the Housatonic Trail and the Great Susquehanna Trail.

It was there that the tribes assembled a community building. Many considered it a holy site. Pritchard believes this is the site, or it is directly next to the site, of what is now the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington.

While the foundation that runs the performing arts center states Mahaiwe is a Mahican word for “downstream,” Pritchard believes it actually means “a place of wholeness.” He thinks this name is a direct reference to the meeting place that was established by the two chiefs in the 1730s.

“All these things tie together as we go through history,” he said. “A lot of American and world religious history come out of Stockbridge.”

Standing beside a table at which she sold her handmade bark baskets Sunday afternoon, Lee summarized this year’s festival as “amazing.” When asked what makes the occasion so special for those who come to share their stories or their work, she turned from her work and faced the Connecticut River.

“It’s really a beautiful place,” she said. “Just look at this. … There’s a lot of calm and happiness here, and it’s really changed. We’ve changed it purposefully.”

Bella Levavi can be reached at 413-930-4579 or blevavi@recorder.com. Reach Julian Mendoza at 413-930-4231 or jmendoza@recorder.com.

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