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2006 Red Earth Festival in Oklahoma Showcases Dance and Art

  • Joseph Mok
  • Wang Yiru

The 20th Red Earth Native American Cultural Festival was held last month in Oklahoma City, in the western United States. The festival's art and dance competitions have helped establish Oklahoma City as one of the most important Native American arts and cultural centers in the U.S. VOA's Elaine Lu narrates.

It is one of the largest cities in the Great Plains Region of the U.S., with the Oklahoma River winding through it and impressive skyscrapers towering in its downtown business district. Oklahoma City is home to the Red Earth Festival. The festival has been voted in the Top 100 events in North America by the American Bus Association.

Members of nearly 100 tribes from throughout North America gathered at the festival to celebrate and share the richness and diversity of their heritage. Dance contestants enter the festival site in a kaleidoscope of color, sound and movement.

Some 600 dancers from all over North America came here to compete. There are different dance categories. Prairie Chicken Dance is a new category for this year.

Dancer Rod Atcheynum comes from Canada. He describes the dance technique. "What a person is supposed to be doing in a chicken dance is imitating the mating dance of a prairie chicken. We dance to celebrate life. You are happy that you are alive. You dance on mother earth so that your people will be more fertile and produce more children."

Native Americans use the word "regalia" for traditional clothing worn for ceremonial occasions. Each tribe is identified with its unique clothes, headdresses and ornamentations.

Atcheynum explains the use of regalia. "When you put your regalia -- your traditional outfit -- on, you are dressing up your spirit. And when you get out on the dance floor, the drum, the singing, it makes your spirit dance. So it is not really you out there dancing, it's your spirit."

Regalia are not only bright and beautiful; they are meaningful for Native Americans. "The longer hair is porcupine hair. The shorter hair is deer tail. And the feathers on top are eagle feathers. Porcupine is very powerful. You put it high on your body for honor and respect for that animal, therefore he will then go and help you out. This is pretty much old style. The ottor -- it is revered highly by native people because it lives at two different worlds," Atcheynum said.

The dance competition at Red Earth is one of the rare occasions when dancers from America's northern and southern tribes can be seen together in one venue.

Tyrone Galey judges the dancing. "The northern, you would probably say you would slow down on the steps. The southern speeds up on the steps. You will see the difference where the bustle, the ropes. That has a lot to do with it."

Judges consider many factors when evaluating the dance routines. Galey expresses the judging criteria. "The steps, some are dancing better to the drum. How pretty you look, how the colors and rhythms work along with the regalia."

Some 250 Indian artists display their creations in the art market area of the Red Earth Festival. Mary Howard is one of them. "Red Earth is very unique. There is a feel that I do not really feel at other Indian art shows. Red Earth is very mystical somehow I think."

Eric Oesch is the public relations director for the festival. "The Red Earth Festival is an event to highlight and showcase Native American art and culture. One of the main things we like to do is to share cultures with everybody. So the Red Earth Festival invites people of all cultures to come to the event."

There are activities, art and storytelling for children throughout each festival day. Mothers and daughters can enter their own category of dance competition. Each year since 1987, the Red Earth Native American Cultural Festival has attracted 25,000 visitors to Oklahoma City from around the world.

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