In the poem “Welcome to the Wigwam,” apparently penned in 1910, visitors paid 15 cents to enjoy the event. The festival was a sort of fair, said Mohegan Tribal Chief Lynn Malerba, a joyous time with dinners, traditional foods, and even a palm reader.
Malerba found herself rereading the poem recently, which mentions her great-grandfather - Chief Burrill Fielding, making oyster stew - and references both of his parents as well. And although the event has grown into a much larger affair than the festival of 100-some years ago, its continuity is part of what makes it unique.
“What I think is really special about our Wigwam is that it’s such a tradition,” Malerba said. “It’s a longstanding tribal tradition and one that’s never gone away.”
The Wigwam Festival is a modern version of the ancient Mohegan Thanksgiving for the Corn Harvest, or Green Corn Festival, during which tribespeople annually celebrated their connection to Mundu, the Creator and Great Mystery.
Medicine Woman Emma Baker revitalized the Corn Festival in the mid-19th century, and the celebration has been a central event ever since.
The modern-day Wigwam historically served as an educational and celebratory event but also as sort of a fundraiser. In the “old days,” according to Malerba, it helped to support the tribal government and keep the organization going.
Today, the festival features a dancing competition, indigenous foods, vendors from around the country, and art. It is a weekend-long celebration with a new theme each year, a Master of Ceremonies, Head Female and Male Dancers, a Grand Entry, and competition along with fellowship. It also features spiritual components, storytelling, and exhibits.
Malerba said one of her favorite vendors will be on hand with striking beadwork, while wampum makers from Rhode Island and Massachusetts also bring beautiful jewelry.
“Typically, everyone adds to their regalia,” Malerba said, laughing a little in anticipation of the browsing and shopping that takes place.
Malerba said her mother always wore red regalia, so Malerba does as well. Now, Malerba’s daughter and granddaughter have also adopted red regalia with black. Her new grandson also will wear red this year.
For visitors, the festival is a joyful and moving opportunity to appreciate Native culture. The audience stands in honor of the dancers and tribes represented at the Wigwam during the Grand Entry. The procession features an honor guard with traditional leaders and elected leaders, then elders and younger generations, and an announcing of leaders from other tribes.
There is a sacred fire in the middle of the tent that stays lit the entire weekend. When the festivities wind down, the firekeeper stays with the fire until the last ember is out. Tobacco is offered at the fire, and blessings are invoked. The smoke lifts the blessings up to the Creator.
The Wigwam offers participants a chance to embrace sister nations and catch up with old friends, and it’s an intergenerational event that acknowledges elders with honor and respect.
Fort Shantok, the festival’s location, is a special place to the Mohegans, Malerba said, a place of good spirits that has never been touched archaeologically.
This year’s festival will be held Aug. 17 and 18 from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. each day on the Mohegan Reservation at Fort Shantok; the public is welcome. Parking is at Mohegan Sun’s Thames Garage and shuttles run throughout the day each day.
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