Connecting with NH’s Native American Culture
The Granite State offers a bounty of powwows, events and exhibits celebrating Indigenous people
Over four days in September, thousands of people will visit the Lakes Region town of Sanbornton to dance to tribal drums, enjoy communal feasts and experience how New Hampshire’s earliest residents respect the Earth.
Native Americans and non-Native Americans alike will celebrate Indigenous culture at the 52nd Labor Day Weekend Pow Wow.
“We welcome all — everyone who wants to come and learn about Indigenous communities and their traditions,” says Meredith Audet, the secretary of the Laconia Indian Historical Association, which hosts the state’s largest powwow on Osgood Road near Knox Mountain.
“You are surrounded by really wonderful people,” says Audet, who attended her first powwow when she was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s.
People from all over the world travel to Sanbornton for the event.
“I had a guy from Jerusalem come last year, and he opted for membership,” she says.
Powwows and museums from the Seacoast to the Upper Valley host thousands of visitors each year. In Sanbornton, the 95-acre Dulac Land Trust includes up to 50 campsites, an area for RVs and 22 vendors who sell handcrafted Native items.
Gerry Dulac founded the Laconia Indian Historical Association in 1969 and purchased the property that hosts the powwow. The association became a nonprofit in 1971.
Dulac wanted to create a place where people could learn and teach Native American traditions to others, Audet says.
“We dance and drum from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., take a break, and do more dancing and drumming in the evening,” Audet says.
On Friday, the powwow holds a Mourners Feast, where association members remember those who have died from 1973 to the present.
A Sunday buffet, which Meredith describes as “the biggest feast in the East,” is the ultimate potluck. Attendees enjoy a variety of dishes and eat together at long tables.
“They actually break bread together at night and sit and talk about their day,” she says.
About an hour west of Sanbornton, the Mt. Kearsarge Indian Museum in Warner also connects visitors with Native American culture. Charles “Bud” Thompson and his wife, Nancy, founded the museum in 1991.
The museum has seven galleries representing seven North American regions where Native people have lived. A beaded Iroquois bonnet, which is on display in the Northeast Woodlands, and an Apache Olla basket, from the Southwest, are among the many featured artifacts from the museum’s collection.
The 12-acre site includes an arboretum and a wooded trail where visitors can see rows of birch trees. Native Americans used the trees to build canoes, lodges and other items on display inside the museum.
The Medicine Woods Trail was once a dump full of discarded items like old refrigerators, bald tires and coils of barbed wire. Thompson reclaimed the land, and John Peters, whose Native name was Slow Turtle and the Supreme Medicine Man of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, bestowed his blessing during the ceremony in June 1992.
“Native people are alive and well in New Hampshire,” says Andrew Bullock, the museum’s executive director. “There is still quite a vibrant Native community in New Hampshire, even though the state does not officially recognize them.”
Bullock encourages people to attend powwows if they want to experience the essence of Native American culture. “That is where the true information is,” he says. “It’s more of a process than a destination.”
As concern grows over the country’s environmental degradation, more people are turning to Native American culture to learn how they respected and treasured the land for thousands of years, Bullock says.
“Environmental stewardship is at the core of the museum’s mission,” he says.
The museum is breaking ground to set up solar panels to generate renewable energy, which it plans to complete by next summer.
A new exhibit, “Nebizun: Water is Life,” by Vera Longtoe Sheehan, opened July 22. It focuses on the Indigenous viewpoint on the use and caretaking of water.
Sheehan, an Abenaki educator, artist and historian from Vermont, will use artwork, informational panels and activities to teach about the importance of clean water to all our communities.
“The exhibit was inspired by a group of Wabanaki grandmothers who undertook an 857-kilometer spiritual journey to walk from the Sipekne’katik River in Nova Scotia to the Penobscot River at Nezebun, in Passadumkeag, Maine,” Sheehan says.
The exhibit runs through November.
As Portsmouth marks its 400th anniversary, the city is honoring the Seacoast’s first Indigenous inhabitants. At Strawbery Banke’s Jones House, visitors can view “The People of the Dawnland.”
The exhibit opened in May 2019 after archaeologists unearthed tools, pottery and tent holes that confirmed Abenaki people inhabited the site long before 1623, says Veronica Lester, a Strawbery Banke spokeswoman.
Visitors can touch traditional basket weaves, play with a cornhusk doll, step inside a reproduction wigwam and see what plants are growing in the Abenaki teaching garden. They can also learn about the Abenaki and Wabanaki peoples of Northern New England, Southern Quebec and the Canadian Maritime Provinces.
Strawbery Banke also will host the Piscataqua Powwow on August 12 and 13, which will include drumming, dancing, storytelling and Native American crafts and foods, according to Lester.
Alexandra Martin, a Strawbery Banke archaeologist, says it’s essential for Granite State residents to appreciate Native American culture.
“Without understanding the more than 12,000 years of Indigenous history in this area, we lack context for the colonial encounter, the availability of well-tended resources and the political agreements that ultimately allowed the English to build homes here,” Martin says.