In a whirl of feathers, deerskin, and animal pelts, the dancers parade through the rapt crowd. Chanting drummers create thunder. Whoops of joy punctuate the air. It's Day 2 of the Green Corn Thanksgiving, and this grand entry procession kicks off the festivities as Narragansett Indians of all ages, joined by representatives of other tribes, proceed into the ceremonial circle.
History records that this was the 327th year that the Narragansetts have held the Green Corn Thanksgiving in Rhode Island. But the tribe has actually celebrated the arrival of fresh sweet corn (which they call "green" corn) since long before the colonists began writing things down such things. According to oral traditions, the ceremony has been taking place for 25,000 years, or, as Ella Sekatua, tribal historian, genealogist, and medicine woman says, "ever since they started planting and growing corn."
The Green Corn Thanksgiving is only one of the tribe's monthly thanksgivings. There are 12 more, corresponding with the Narragansetts' 13-month lunar calendar. The year begins in late February or early March when sap starts running in the trees, and the natural world begins to come alive. Early in the summer, there's a Strawberry Thanksgiving. The green bean celebration comes later.
But none of the thanksgivings are as grand or as well attended as the Green Corn Thanksgiving, also known as Annual August Meeting. The festival is much more than a harvest celebration. It is a homecoming for many of the 2,700 Narragansetts who have scattered across the country.
"They come home for two days for this event. It's like the salmon coming back, so it's a great feeling for us," explains Chief Sachem Matthew Thomas, who is clad in designer American sports clothes before he dons his buckskin leggings, ribbon shirt, and wild-turkey feather headdress for the ceremonies. "There's something in you [that] no matter where you're at, at August Meeting [time], you gotta go home."
The ripening of the corn symbolizes a time when nature yields its bounty and the tribe gathers, says Lloyd Wilcox, who is the tribe's medicine man, as were his father and grandfather before him.
The celebration's continual existence is a declaration of tribal identity and endurance. That continuity was tested when the Narragansetts had to fight to regain their official tribal status. Wilcox recalls his grandfather telling him how state officials paid each Narragansett "$15 and change" in the early 1880s, stripped the tribe of its status, and auctioned off much of its land.
The Narragansetts battled for more than a century to recover their territory and identity, claiming that the state's detribalization was illegal because it was done without the approval of the federal government. An act of Congress in 1978 granted the tribe federal recognition, and the tribe eventually won back 1,800 acres of land.
But even during detribalization, a strong core of families always returned "to make the celebration a reality," says Ms. Sekatua.
"When we were detribalized, no matter what the government said about us being detribalized, everyone came home for August meeting," says Loren Spears, a Narragansett who is raising her children to have a strong tribal identity.
The thanksgiving takes place on the grounds of the Indian Meeting House Church in Charlestown, R.I., a stone church where nondenominational services are held. The land, which also holds a ceremonial circle and the tribe's sacred spring, has always remained in the tribe's hands.
In earlier times, the makers of baskets, arrows, or stone tools would bring their wares to trade. Children participated in arrow-shooting contests. Today, the ceremonial circle has a commercial fringe of tents where everything from traditional native goods and foods to trinkets and hot dogs are sold.
Other tribes are invited to the event, which is also open to the public. Hundreds of visitors mingle with the hundreds of natives. Tribal families and friends congregate around vehicles parked at the periphery, hanging out and catching up.
The essence of the Green Corn Thanksgiving, however, is praise and thanks. The drumming and shouts of joy are all done to attract the creator's attention.
During the welcoming ceremony, Chief Sachem Thomas proffers a ceremonial pipe to the four directions. According to Sekatau, this ritual "gives thanks to the creator, to the four directions from whence all things come, and to the earth mother who holds all the things we need to survive."