Director Says Indigenous Troupe Will Share ‘Our Ways, Our Virtues’

October 6, 2023
Cheenulka Pocknett (Mashpee Wampanoag) Artistic Director, Red Hawk Singers and Dancers. Courtesy Photo

Not long ago, Cheenulka Pocknett was working in sales and he said he had to call himself “Chris, because nobody wants to buy something from Cheenulka. I’ve learned to navigate the system that was founded on me, not by me.”

Pocknett is the director of the Wampanoag Red Hawk Singers and Dancers, and he and other members are scheduled to deliver a free performance on Sunday at 1 p.m. on the quad at the Bedford Campus of Middlesex Community College, 591 Springs Road., in celebration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, which is Monday.

“We don’t just represent Wampanoag nations; we are based in Wampanoag country, but we bring in other nations and their own dance and songs,” Pocknett said in an interview on Thursday.

The troupe began performances in 1996, Pocknett said, and during the early years they were in demand as a “token” symbol of Native American culture “to make people happy around Thanksgiving time” in school classrooms. 

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“I told them that’s not how we operate,” he said. “My brothers and sisters and I started this dance troupe to tell our side of the story – the true story of this land and why it means so much to us.” Their message, he said, “is coming from a place of love and respect and not from a place of hate and hurtfulness.”

Pocknett said the performance is designed to “share our ways, our virtues, with the public. We always lived in harmony with the entirety of creation. We have been able to hold on to our ways and our traditions as an Indigenous people.  

“My idea is to learn who you are, be proud of who you are, and teach your children.”

The presenters will be dressed in traditional regalia, Pocknett said. Some of the program reflects pre-colonization and others post-settlement, “showing the impact of colonization on our indigeneity.” Some of the songs are older than the United States.

“We want to teach that as Indigenous people, we are far from savages,” he continued. “We are doctors and bankers and engineers and artisans.”

Pocknett explained that although the Red Hawk troupe is based in Mashpee, the name Wampanoag reflects more as the name of a people than of a place. “It translates as people who greet the sun first. It’s a description of who we are as humans. That’s true of every Indigenous tribe in the Western Hemisphere. We don’t have any ownership of this world.”

He advocates increasing education about Indigenous Peoples, their history and culture. Now “there’s only a brief glimpse,” he said. “You talk for years about foreign wars, kings and queens. And we have to send our children to Indigenous schools so they can have knowledge about their history and culture.”

Over the decades since the Red Hawk programs began, Pocknett said “I can see people adapting to our virtues, to our ways of taking care of other beings that we share this place with.” But he added that often, “when I go to new places, it’s the same ignorance.”

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