But they are sorceresses with a needle and thread and sewing machine, making new ribbon shirts that evoke the aura of those classic paintings. And every shirt they’ve made has seen me through long days dancing in the summer’s wilting heat and into the fall’s chilly nights. Sometimes, I look down while I’m wearing one and I can feel the energy those lovely women put into it. I feel as if nothing nor can no-one touch me, harm me or make me feel anything but happy. I feel pretty in a Muhammad Ali kind of way, like I’ve got on Frodo’s elf- woven shirt. It feels like magic when I put one on, so that’s what I call them; magic shirts.
Now, I have other parts of my regalia that I consider magic too: beaded moose-hide Abenaki moccasins picked out and bartered over by a Narragansett friend, a carved wooden turtle medallion my sister gave me, the leather for my breechcloth a Shinnecock woman chose and cut the fringe, (she thought I’d “murder it with a pair of scissors”); beaded turtles on the breech by the same woman who makes my shirts; white turquoise earrings acquired during a trip to my nephews’ Dine` in-laws in New Mexico; an eagle-feather fan gifted by the Narragansett’s at an honor ceremony for dancing in their August Meeting (which they’ve held for three-hundred plus years); and a turkey-feather head-dress provided by two cousins who shot and ate the turkey, then smoked the skin with the feathers attached, so they would stay on until “you can’t dance anymore.” Around my waist I wear a beaded leather belt that I made for my sister while I was in the Navy that she returned to me for good luck. Two silver turtles on silver chains hang from my neck; one from my love inside the shirt next to my skin, the other outside my shirt-collar, is from two medicine women that live in a little house bordered by a forest, a cemetery and a small highway. I found out the hard way that I have to keep them separated, or else they get to scrapping and tangled up and damn near choke me as I dance. And this year a woman who makes jewelry from sea glass will make a necklace for me. I think anything that the ocean has cleaned and sculpted over time might give me an edge in patience and stamina. It all counts as magic to me and even though I’m a twenty-first century Indian, I still believe that something unseen and unknown got us this far along so I might as well believe in magic. Can’t hurt, I guess.
It’s taken almost fifteen years for this current outfit to come together, and it’s an ongoing process. Fifteen years. I’ve been in and out of the pow-wow arena for most of my life. Though I’m no longer a young man, whenever I’m in that arena, wherever it might be, time is suspended. I am again that eight-year-old boy called into a small teepee by an old man during Shinnecock pow-wow, given a pair of bells for being a good and energetic dancer and told that dance would be there for me when there was nothing else. I remember being really excited and I truly believed that those bells helped me dance better and longer. I didn’t know exactly what that old man was talking about then, but I have come to realize that he was right. I see how moving my feet to the drum keeps my heart beating strong and keeps my head clear, how it takes away aches and pains and sorrows and what-ifs for a while. You know– like magic.
Regalia (or outfits) are always being worked on, updated, tweaked and adjusted. My beaded moccasins have been re-soled three times with moose hide bought from the same booth on the pow-wow trail. Ribbon shirts are always fading and disintegrating from sweat and the bleaching sun. I can usually get two or three years out of one, if I rotate them properly. Feathers fall off the headdress, necklaces pop and jewelry and metal armbands have to constantly be polished, leather ties deteriorate and need to be checked constantly, or they’ll let go of whatever is being held in the middle of a contest, meaning disqualification, if it’s a major piece of regalia.