Come to the powwow!

The front flap of the welcome tepee finally was opened - a signal that it was time for the ceremonies to begin. A man named Slow Turtle approached the microphone that had been set up in the middle of the campsite and asked us to hold hands and form a circle. In a simple opening prayer, he thanked the creator for all four-legged creatures, for vegetation, birds, and fish - and for the lessons they taught us.

The ``supreme sachem,'' or ``chief,'' spoke next. ``We welcome you from all four directions of Mother Earth,'' said Drifting Goose. ``We welcome you to our circle of unity, and we welcome you to join in our dances, which are a part of our tradition.''

As several young men began to chant and pound on a single bass drum, dozens of other men, women, and children joined hands and picked up the beat with their feet. Some were dressed in full tribal regalia, with fringed leggings, feathered head-dresses, and hand-made moccasins. Others wore jeans and Reeboks - or went barefoot.

The circle grew wider and wider, and youngsters who'd come to watch the festivities jumped up and did their own versions of the centuries-old steps. Four-year-olds in Mickey Mouse T-shirts whooped past dignified elders carrying colorfully patterned blankets.

All in all, the opening of the annual powwow of the Wampanoag Indian nation was quite a sight! And later in the day, when the Massachusetts Wampa-noags sat outside their campers and tents, talking with Indians of the Algonquin, Iroquois, Narragansett, and Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape tribes, we could see many new friendships in the making.

If you've ever been to an Indian powwow, you know how much fun they can be. But members of each tribe and nation take their history and today's responsibilities seriously, too. The Wampanoags, for example, want people to know that their tribe has lived in Massachusetts for more than 10,000 years and that they were the ones who welcomed the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock.

``After all, we were the first Indians the white man saw,'' 13-year-old Vanessa Peters told us. Like many other members of her tribe, Vanessa enjoys learning about Wampanoag culture. She and her two sisters, Coral and Crystal, actually look forward to staying after school several days each week to study traditional survival skills - tracking animals, making moccasins, digging and cleaning quahog clams for chowder.

The girls also are members of the Granny Squannit Dancers, and they often take trips to other schools to perform snake dances and round dances and to answer questions about their Indian nation.

Like most Wampanoag kids, the three Peters sisters also have special tribal names. Vanessa is known as ``Little Clover,'' and the nine-year-old twins, Coral and Crystal, are called ``Red Cedar'' and ``White Cedar.''

Every summer at powwow time, the girls put on their best dancing dresses and the headbands they've sewn with beads and shells and invite hundreds of outsiders to come and learn about their nation.

Almost every state has a resident Indian nation. Their members - just like Little Clover, Red Cedar, and White Cedar - would probably like to share a powwow dance with you.

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