The Wandering Bull Charges After Pow Wows
The Wandering Bull, which sells craft materials and regalia (with an emphasis on Eastern Woodlands regalia), started with a card table set up at pow wows in 1969. Over the years, the Indian-owned family business grew as the New England pow wow circuit expanded and, founder Paul Bullock said, they all “worked out of our basement.” Along the way, Paul and his wife, Harriett, also raised four boys and two girls. “We all did crafts as kids,” said son Chris, who recently moved the business to his home in Washington, New Hampshire.
The Bullocks opened their first storefront in Attleboro, Massachusetts in 1982, the year eldest son Andy graduated from the Native Studies and Anthropology program at Trent University in Ontario. Paul, who is 79, attributes his longevity in the business to hard work and determination: “I worked for a long, long time doing craft work, then selling at pow wows and at the storefront. I would say my success is due to persistence and a commitment to quality service more than anything. In addition, our way of life while raising a family ran alongside our business.”
He says the pow wow circuit in New England when he started was a very different scene than what we see today. “Years ago, there were only two or three pow wows a year and those were often more like tribal meetings. Also, there was a Western style of dress; for instance, many of the people in New England wore Plains-style headdresses.” Bullock, who is of Wampanoag descent, said, “When I started out, as early as age 10, one of the only places to go for Native gatherings was with Mohawk people at the New Haven Arena in Connecticut, with the Indian Defense League of America.”
Unlike in other parts of the country, there can be a pow wow or social in New England nearly every weekend all year long and the Wandering Bull shows up at most of them. During the Mt. Kearsarge Indian Museum pow wow last summer, one son was emcee, another was head dancer, and the senior Bullock tended to the open-air store under a sweeping canopy. At an indoor venue honoring veterans at a veterans hospital gymnasium this winter, Paul emceed in full Eastern Woodlands regalia, and Chris and his wife, Carolyn, tended the Wandering Bull’s tables that displayed fresh sweetgrass, books, jewelry, kits for beading and boxed, Eastern-spirit smudge gift sets.
“There is a lot going on at a pow wow,” Chris said. “We vend at 30 pow wows a year.” In New England, that means enduring a range of outdoor temperatures from 40 to 104 degrees. In addition to extreme temperatures, the weather can be incredibly muggy, pouring rain or windy. The locations for pow wows in New England also vary; a pow wow can be held on former agricultural fairgrounds, on privately owned land prepared for a specific event, alongside a dog park at a state beach, by a fresh water lake under pine trees at a state park, on the playgrounds of a privately owned campground, or on an exposed hillside beside a multimillion dollar museum.
During a recent week this past February, the Wandering Bull family was packing inventory from its store in New Hampshire to sell at two different pow wows the same weekend: One Bullock brother set up tables in New Hampshire and the other drove to Massachusetts for an indoor pow wow at an elementary school in Sturbridge. “Our most popular items, both online and at pow wows,” said Chris, “are craft supplies [beads, pendants, looms, tools, shell, quills, shawl fringe, bolo supplies and jewelry findings]. What we sell at one pow wow will differ from one event to another. For instance, if we know there will be a lot of tourists, we will have finished products [such as ribbon shirts] and gift items [such as smudging kits]. At others, where there are a lot of crafters, we will select Pendleton blankets or high-end finished goods. My dad emcees at close to 30 pow wows each year, including a few that we don’t vend.”
The pow wows that the Wandering Bull attends are primarily in New England but occasionally in Pennsylvania and New York. Chris is happy for the business but feels that there are too many pow wows now. “I would like to see fewer and better pow wows and to see all of us concentrate on quality, as that would let us all look better.”
Numerous New England pow wows do not have competitions with the strict dress and dance-style rules of the more highly attended Southwest and Western pow wows, so often dancers in the northeast may appear casual. The Bullocks try to reflect a more formal Northeast Woodlands style through both their own clothing and dance and by selling items that will support the effort of Northeast craft workers and dancers. The store also sells Eastern-style, ready-made pucker-toe, embellished moccasins, colonial-era shirts, stamped German silver, and material for breech cloths and match coats. Other Eastern-style regalia include a moose antler roach spreader and woven wampum barrettes.
Chris said his father has multiple outfits for his work as MC. At one recent fund-raising pow wow, several onlookers admired Paul’s drop, appliquéd as it was with a series of exquisitely detailed, uniquely designed and expertly executed beaded roundels. “My mother makes everything for him,” Chris said. She also sews items sold by the store, such as ribbon shirts, shawl blanks and leggings that a craft worker can leave as is or add personal, decorative items. “She does a lot of designing and creating,” added her husband. “She has made Micmac coats as well as wedding clothing for other tribal people throughout the country.”
The Bullocks can also locate and explain items for collectors or students. Online, they offer Canadian Wabanaki antique and vintage baskets such as an etched birch-bark mocock from the 1940s and an etched birch-bark rogan from the 1960s. Sometimes, the sons will bring a large quantity of vintage baskets to a pow wow, as they did at Brown University’s first such event, in 2008.
“Today,” said Chris, “the business has six employees and is growing. “We were the first to have an online store. Now we keep up with social media networking and weekly e-mail marketing.”
Even the patriarch enjoys social media networking, albeit of the more traditional variety. “The best part of the business is dealing with the people,” said Paul. “The Native American community, and what it stands for, is a comfortable way of life.” 0
The Wandering Bull, 800-430-2855, 321 Martin Road, Washington, New Hampshire, WanderingBull.com