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Tuscarora Nation celebrates tradition

by jmaloni
Thu, Jul 5th 2012 12:35 pm
Current Tuscarora Princess Autumn Thibault.
Current Tuscarora Princess Autumn Thibault.

by Alexandra Muto

The 167th Tuscarora Field Day and Picnic, Niagara County's oldest annual field day and picnic, will take place on Friday, July 13, from 5 p.m. until late evening, and Saturday, July 14, from 7:30 a.m. until nightfall.

The event takes place in the grove just north of the Tuscarora Indian School on Walmore Road. Open to both the general public and residents of the Tuscarora Nation, it will be an educational and enriching experience that bonds the communities together. Over the course of its rich history, the celebration has expanded the music, food, and activities offered.

The Tuscarora Field Day and Picnic offers an eclectic group of events to please people of all ages and backgrounds, according to Francene Patterson, wife of the event coordinator Neil Patterson Sr. She explains that possibly one of the most popular activities is the Tuscarora Princess Pageant, a competition that began at the 1960's event for Tuscarora Nation residents aged 16 or older. That event is what expanded the festival from one to two evenings, and is "very popular - a good crowd on Friday evening for that."

The princess competition is unique because girls are not simply judged for beauty or specific talents. Instead, judges seek a winner who has the poise and charisma to represent the Tuscarora community. As Arien Bissell, one of the Tuscarora Princess Pageant coordinators explains, judges cannot be members of the community, but are chosen for their familiarity with Tuscarora culture and customs. By these means, judges critique girls for their ability to represent the community, but also do not play favorites. Bissell emphasizes that the contest's different events, such as having girls speak about their community and then present a "cultural sharing" to demonstrate their knowledge of its customs, are designed to make sure the winner is "on her toes and is ready to answer inquiries about the community."

The princess competition starts at 7 p.m. Friday.

Other popular events celebrate the traditions and history of the Tuscarora Nation, such as the Smoke Dance Competition, which Patterson explains is a "traditional native practice and dance for both boys and girls." The dances are beautiful productions that offer an opportunity to learn about one of the Nation's most important cultural practices, as well as an opportunity to experience an exciting contest whose winner receives a monetary prize.

The "warm-up" event will take place at 1 p.m., and the final competition will occur at 5 p.m., both on Saturday.

The Tonemah Pageant is a friendly competition, which allows young children from "newborns to about 5 years old to dress in traditional dress" and perform on stage. Not only is this competition a chance for youngsters to engage in the Nation's traditions, but is also endearing for adults, as the children are always "something to watch up on stage - they are so cute!" Patterson said.

The Tonemah Pageant takes place at 6 p.m. on Saturday.

Patterson emphasized that the music and food at the Tuscarora Nation Field Day and Picnic is one of its largest drawing factors because the festival offers delicious and diverse choices. Many Native American musicians will perform, including Corn Bred, a Tuscaroran band from Onondaga, at 3 p.m. Saturday; Pale Face, a rock band, at 8 p.m. on Saturday; and the Joel Johnson Band, a group composed of members from six different nations, at 9 p.m. on Saturday. In addition, many local groups from Niagara County will be performing, including the Tuscarora Baptist Choir at 6 p.m. on Friday, and at 4 p.m. on Saturday, the Craig Wilkins Band from Akron, a festival favorite that, according to Patterson, has been performing at the festival for around 15 years.

While the hand drum competition existed last year, it "was very late in the evening," and in an attempt to revitalize the activity's popularity, it will be at 7 p.m. on Saturday. The hand drum competition is an opportunity for participants to demonstrate their skill on the Iroquois traditional drum. Patterson explains that the drum is "a small hand water drum, which you hold in one hand while playing and (often) singing." Undoubtedly, the festival has something to appeal to all ages and backgrounds.

A variety of delectable dishes, ranging from fair favorites like hot dogs and hamburgers to corn soup, chicken chowder and Indian tacos will be available. Festival participants always enjoy the Buffalo burgers, which were introduced to the festival a few years ago.

As Patterson notes, the event has expanded from a "small family picnic" to "quite a production" with a lot of crafts, beadwork, native-made handwork and a beading competition, plus a variety of food vendors. Attendees come from as far away as Arizona.

Located in a "nice, shaded tree grove," the festival will offer both an escape from the hot summer weather and a fun-filled weekend for families throughout the area. It promises to be a wonderful reunion between residents of the reservation and those who have left the reservation. Volunteers run the event, and parking and admission to the event are free.

For more information, contact Neil or Francene Patterson at 716-628-5424.

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