TURNERS FALLS – The ninth annual Pocumtuck Homelands Festival brought vendors, storytelling, dancing, drumming and more to Unity Park over the weekend, with many attendees noticing the festival’s growth.
“This festival takes us back to our roots and to the first inhabitants of the region,” commented festival volunteer Jeff Carroll.
The event was organized by the Nolumbeka Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the cultural and historical preservation of Native American history. With over 30 vendors, there was plenty for the hundreds of attendees to do and see.
Liz Charlebois, a member of a nation of the Wabanaki Confederacy, ran a booth selling Native jewelry. Some of Charlebois’ intricate pieces included a traditional practice called birchbark biting.
The practice is done by folding a single layer of birch bark and biting into it with the teeth. The bark is unfolded, leaving an intricate pattern on the piece of birch. This process is similar to making paper snowflakes.
Charlebois explained that many indigenous nations that live where birch trees are found make this type of art. It can then be displayed, beaded, or used to make quills (art made from porcupine quills).
The shop sold the works of art framed, made into jewelry, or sold alone.
“I take old styles of art and add a contemporary twist to them,” Charlebois explained.
At another stand, JC “Indio” Ortega, a member of the Winnebago tribe, sold copies of his two books consisting of personal writings. Ortega said her book, “The Black Wolf,” is about her experience of rejecting her Indigenous identity and rediscovering her connection to her ancestors later in life.
“I come every year and it’s grown tremendously every year,” Ortega said of the Pocumtuck Homelands Festival.
A bear skin covered with an orange ribbon, a project called Piwsessit Nebizon Awasos (Little Medicine Bear), was displayed in a tent along the river. This project, directed by Michael Descoteaux, a member of the Nulhegan band of the Abenaki nation, aims to “guide the children of Indian residential schools in Canada and the United States to their ancestors”, according to a poster produced for the exhibition.
Descoteaux explained that when Indigenous children were forced to attend residential schools, not only were they stripped of their culture, but they were also abused, beaten to death, and starved. A movement is underway to find the unmarked graves of these children in both countries.
According to Descoteaux, 10,660 unmarked graves have been found, many of which are in Canada. Only five schools in the United States have participated in the search for the graves of these children. Pocumtuck Homelands Festival attendees were invited to add ribbons to the exhibit to honor lost children.
The festival venue, Unity Park, also carries Aboriginal history, as it has been located across the river from the 1676 ‘Battle of Peskeomskut’. Also known as the Great Falls Massacre, the incident consisted of a surprise attack by William Turner and a colonial militia in which 300 Native American women, children, and elders were killed.
“It feels fitting given the history of this place to be here,” said Nayana LaFond, whose ancestry is part Anishinaabe, Abenaki and Mi’kmaq. “It’s a celebration to still be here.”
LaFond sold prints of black, white, and red portraits she painted of murdered or missing Indigenous women and girls. The prints are part of a project called Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIWG) – a movement that aims to raise awareness of the violence perpetrated against Indigenous women and girls.
These portraits bring to life the statistics that Indigenous women are 11 times more likely to experience violence in their lifetime than any other demographic group, LaFond said.
Main stage events also took place throughout the two days of the festival. A beloved event involved Abenaki educators Joseph Bruchac and his son, Jesse Bruchac, sharing Indigenous stories and playing a variety of music.
Joseph Bruchac told a story about the birth of each animal. He explained each animal using different theatrical voices and explained how their body parts grew or shrunk until what we see today.
Bella Levavi can be reached at [email protected] or 413-930-4579.