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Helen Sells

Timberwolf of the Setalcott Nation prepares to perform a war dance at last year's event. Photo by Lloyd Newman

By Kyle Barr

Every July for the past 11 years the sound of drums, yells, shouts and laughter has resonated from the grounds of the Setauket Elementary School. It is all part of the Setalcott Native American Nation’s Annual Corn Festival Pow-Wow, which returns this weekend. For Helen “Hart of Morning Star” Sells, one of the coordinators of the festival, those sounds are an important part of her family’s history and the history of her people.

A scene from last year’s Corn Festival Pow-Wow. Photo by Lloyd Newman

Sells is a member of the Setauket-based nation and can trace her lineage back four generations to Rachel Tobias Holland Hart, who is depicted in William Sidney Mount’s famous painting, “Eel Spearing at Setauket” (1845). The 76-year-old looks forward to helping to host the event every year.

“A Pow-Wow is a time where we get to celebrate the harvest that we receive from the great spirit each year” she said in a recent telephone interview. “We celebrate our history and make new friends. That’s what it’s basically about. It’s to let people know we’re still here.”

The Setalcott Nation was one of the first Native American tribes to encounter Europeans, selling 30 acres of land to colonists in 1655, in what would become the Town of Brookhaven. The name “Setauket” is derived from the Algonquin speaking Setalcotts whose members still reside in the areas around East Setauket, specifically along Conscience Bay.

A scene from last year’s event. Photo by Lloyd Newman

According to Sells, the Corn Festival Pow-Wow was founded in 2005 by her cousin, Theodore Green, who had been chief at the time. Green, who passed away in 2007, was asked to put an event together to educate the community about Native American culture as well as have them recognize the Setalcott Nation’s importance and history in the development of the surroundings towns and hamlets.

The family event will feature native traditional dances from the Bronx Taino Nation as well as Aztec fire dancers along with craft and food vendors, storytelling, singing, a candy dance for the children and much more.

A Grand Entry, which will be held at noon and 4 p.m. on Saturday, and at noon on Sunday, will honor the memory of World War I veterans with American Legion’s Hunter Squire Jackson Post 1218 (Amityville) and the Irving Hart Post 1466 (Setauket), among others.

The 12th annual Corn Festival Pow-Wow will be held at the Setauket Elementary School, 34 Main St., Setauket on July 8 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and July 9 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Bring seating. Admission and parking is free but donations are appreciated. For more information, call 631-698-5517 or 917-415-5139.

Gen. George Washington (John Galla) with his headquarter’s flag. Photo by Heidi Sutton
Gen. Benedict Arnold (Brian Cea). Photo by Heidi Sutton
Gen. Benedict Arnold (Brian Cea). Photo by Heidi Sutton

The chilly 45-degree weather did not deter almost 300 brave souls who came out for a special walk through local history last Saturday night as the Three Village Historical Society held its 21st annual Spirits Tour, “The Culper Spy Ring: From Secrecy to Victory.”

“The Culper Spy Ring has really been making news lately,” Carolyn Benson, one of the tour guides, said. This tour shows “how many people from this area were involved.”

The host of the tour, Emma S. Clark, whose name graces the library in Setauket and was portrayed by Karin Lynch, set the scene for what was to come.

“The Culper Spy Ring was a group of men known as the Secret Six who helped George Washington win the war. … Their identity was so secretive that Gen. Washington never knew their true identity. Their messages were written in code and their letters were in invisible ink,” she said. “Tonight you will meet with these patriots and some loyalists who will share their stories with you about what it was like during and after the war.”

Helen ‘Morningstar’ Sells and Nellie Edwards of the Setalcott Nation. Photo by Heidi Sutton
Helen ‘Morningstar’ Sells and Nellie Edwards of the Setalcott Nation. Photo by Heidi Sutton

The 1.5-hour tours ran throughout the evening, beginning with the Young Historian tours. Each group, carrying flashlights and lanterns, was led through the cemeteries of the Setauket Presbyterian Church [established in the late 17th century] and the Caroline Church of Brookhaven [established in 1729].

All the key players were present, from the ring’s most active operatives — Maj. Benjamin Tallmadge, Caleb Brewster, Austin Roe, Anna Smith Strong, James Rivington and Robert Townsend — to Gen. George Washington and Abraham Woodhull, the leader of the Culper Spy Ring, to Gen. Benedict Arnold, the infamous traitor. Woodhull, portrayed by Dennis O’Connor, appeared at the foot of his own grave in the Presbyterian cemetery during the tour.

Lesser-known community spirits made appearances as well, including Bette Harmon, born into slavery to the Strong family; Maj. John Andre, a British spy whose capture exposed Benedict Arnold as a traitor; loyalist Col. Benjamin Floyd; patriot Rev. Zachariah Greene; and a special appearance by  Setalcott Nation members Helen “Morning Star” Sells and Nellie Edwards. In total, 20 spirits were conjured to provide an insight into their lives during the Revolutionary War. The period costumes, provided by Nan Guzzetta, gave the entire event an eerily authentic feel.

Private David Williams (George Monez), Major John Andre (Pat DiVisconti), Private Isaac Van Wart (Sage Hardy). Photo by Heidi Sutton
Private David Williams (George Monez), Major John Andre (Pat DiVisconti), Private Isaac Van Wart (Sage Hardy). Photo by Heidi Sutton

At each stop, the spirits gave out secret codes that, when compiled and decoded, formed a secret letter for Gen. Washington, who was the last stop of the night.

Nine-year-old Alex Perrone, of Stony Brook, was experiencing the tour for the first time with his mother, Lauren, but came well prepared.

“My mom and I read a book called ‘Redcoats and Petticoats,’” he said.

Alex enjoyed the tour, especially meeting Washington and learning about the Setalcott tribe and their longhouses, and said he would definitely do it again. His mom agreed, adding, “I just thought it was really informative and I thought the actors were wonderful and I think it was a great way to learn about local history and this special place.”

In all, the 21st annual Spirits Tour was a rare historical treat. For more information, visit the historical society at www.tvhs.org.