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Experience Native American dancing, food at the Tuscarora Nation’s festival

LEWISTON – Visitors are invited to sample Native American foods, admire handmade wares and witness hand-drum and smoke dance competitions while members of the Tuscarora Nation gather to celebrate their 171st annual Picnic and Field Days on Friday evening and Saturday.

The event is planned for the picnic grove just north of the Tuscarora Indian School, which is located near the corner of Mount Hope and Walmore roads in Lewiston.

It is Niagara County’s longest-running annual field day event. Admission and parking are free, and all are encouraged to bring lawn chairs.

“It is quite an amazing thing,” said Neil Patterson Sr., who has been coordinating the event for more than three decades. “People make this a destination. I’ve met people here from all over the world. They hear about it and show up. People really get into it.”

“We also have a lot of people who have moved away and come back for this weekend to see family and friends,” he added. “It’s good to see old friends and it’s a time to meet new friends.”

Florence Patterson, wife of Chief Kenneth Patterson, will be honored for her generosity, her nephew noted.

“We have wanted to make this picnic site bigger, but we couldn’t, and Florence is going to let us use land adjacent to the picnic grove (for the future),” Patterson said. “We always try and remember our old friends and Florence always came to the picnic and served ice cream and made pies – she has always donated to the Nation.”

The event begins at 5 p.m. Friday.

The Tuscarora Baptist Choir will perform at 6 p.m., followed by gospel singer Phil Wright.

The popular Tuscarora Princess contest follows at 7 p.m., with contestants dressed in their finest beadwork outfits – works of art often created by relatives and friends, Patterson noted.

Guitarist Sandy Maracle will perform following the contest, and Mark Porter’s PastMasters will take the stage around 8 p.m.

Festivities start early Saturday, with a 7:30 a.m. breakfast. Donations are accepted.

At 9 a.m., the 10K race and 2.5-mile fun run take place, with awards at 10:30 a.m. Dennis Clause will entertain with Native storytelling while spectators wait for the winners to be announced.

A parade is planned for 11 a.m.

“It’s one of the world’s shortest parades,” Patterson said with a chuckle. “We bring the flags and the Iroquois Indian Band plays.”

“We are also honoring Rosemary Hill this year, who has been in charge of our beadwork competition for 10 years,” Patterson said.

At noon, a children’s contest is staged, with contestants decked out in their Native finery, followed by a performance of the Tuscarora Mission Choir.

“At 1 p.m., we’ll have the warm-ups for the Smoke Dance competition, which is sponsored by First Niagara,” Patterson said. “(Performers) will be in full regalia. The smoke dance is an old Iroquois war dance.”

The Iroquois Indian Band will perform again at 2 p.m., followed by Mohawk singer Theresa Bear Fox. Craig Wilkins of Akron will perform traditional and new country and western songs.

The Smoke Dance finals are held at 5 p.m., with participants competing in male and female categories for cash prizes.

At 6 p.m., Corn-Bred of Syracuse will take the stage, followed by a hand drum and singing competition at 7 p.m. Then, the Wilson brothers will perform on drums and guitar.

“We will have more than 40 vendors, with everything Native-related, from beadwork to food, like cornbread and corn soup to buffalo burgers,” he added. “Of course, we’ll have hot dogs and hamburgers, too.”

Patterson said the schedule is loosely constructed to allow for last-minute entries.

“We’ve even had a group of Aztec dancers from Mexico City,” he said. “Right around now, I start getting calls from groups and I try and get them in, so the schedule is subject to change as we go along.”

In addition, competitive games are also being staged during the picnic, from lacrosse to softball to horseshoes.

Planning for the next year’s picnic starts shortly after this one ends.

“We’re always looking for ideas to expand and improve,” said Patterson’s wife, Francene. “There is a good representation of a number of families” among the volunteers, she added.

“And everyone is welcome to help,” she said. “We don’t turn anyone away.”

Neil Patterson recalled an elderly woman visiting the picnic for the first time several years ago.

“She sat there all day and listened to the music and came over to me after, and said, ‘Thanks for inviting me,’ ” he said. “She told me, ‘This is the best-kept secret in Niagara County.’ ”