Eastern Band Cherokee Robin Jumper, of the Snowbird Community in North Carolina, performs a traditional Oklahoma Fancy Dance in the arena during the Native American Cultural Festival Saturday at Chehaw Park.
ALBANY — Coming toward the entrance of Chehaw Park on Saturday, cars were backed up for half a mile. But there was no auto accident. It was the annual Native American Cultural Festival, one of Chehaw’s signature events, growing in popularity.
Even without the colorful identifying banner stretched between two totem poles, the call of wooden flutes against the primitive drums made it clear to the crowd they’d found what they were looking for.
On a perfect spring day visitors got a chance to witness authentic Native American dances which were not just entertaining but symbolic of the spiritual beliefs of the ancient people. As the dancers changed position, adorned with headdresses of pheasant and macaw feathers — and in one case the head of a jaguar — Emcee J.J. Kent explained their motions:
“They are paying honor to the Great Spirit in all directions to acknowledge that whichever direction we face, we’re always addressing that Great Spirit,” Kent said.
According to Kent, a Lakota Sioux, Chehaw’s weekend festival is an inter-tribal event of many Native American origins intended to “break some stereotypes.”
“It’s part of our goal to help the non-Indian world to realize there are many different Indian nations,” Kent said. “They don’t all speak the same language or have the same customs.”
According to Kent, there are presently 567 federally recognized Indian nations in North America.
Later, a Native American in buckskins trotted his horse around the circular center stage as a part of the “Warriors on Horseback” presentation. The crowd was given a closeup look at the various painted markings on both horse and rider, signifying such things as the rider’s rank or history in battle, as an offstage voice explained the marks.
“The introduction of the horse to Native Americans came in the early 1500s,” Kent said. “Before that time, only dogs were domesticated. Since horses are so much bigger and more powerful, it made life a lot more efficient.”
On hand were enthusiastic experts in almost every field of early American life, including spear and knife making, fire by friction, flintlock firearms, basket weaving and even blacksmithing, which caught the attention of Blain and Erin West, age 11, from Thomasville.
“I never knew how they made those things,” Blain West said. “It’s really interesting.”
“We just decided to go to Chehaw for the day. We didn’t even know about the festival,” said James West, Blain and Erin’s dad.
Christina Gordon, an exhibitor from North Carolina has an unusual hobby: She was discovered Saturday busily scraping the hair and outer skin from a raw deer hide. When she finished, she said, she would rub the hide with a mixture of brains and water.
“It’s basically emulsified fat,” Gordon said. “The oils soak into the fibers of the hide and as it dries I can stretch it out and work it and it will turn out soft.”
While modern tanning methods are definately more toxic to the water system, Gordon said, she demonstrates the process mostly for historical reasons and so we all might better appreciate modern conveniences.
“Until you’ve started a fire by rubbing two sticks together you can’t appreciate the light you get when you flip a switch,” Gordon said. “Today we can just go to the store and buy a fabric, but early Americans couldn’t do that.”