From a small circle of people selling handicrafts, Alabama’s Moundville Native American Festival, October 10 to 13, has grown to be among the top tourism events in the state and a big celebration of the Southeast Indian heritage and culture.
Now on its 24th year, the festival—conceived as part of Jones Archaeological Museum’s 50th year anniversary celebration—boasts of award-winning and accomplished musicians, dancers, storytellers, artists and educators.
“Over the last 24 years, we’ve helped educate over 100,000 people about the arts, crafts and lifeways of Southeastern Indian,” said Betsy Irwin, festival director. “Many of the Native Americans attending the festival consider this a homecoming and they look forward to sharing their culture and experience with visitors.”
Irwin said the festival averages 12,000 visitors from Wednesday to Saturday. About 8,000 are schoolchildren from Alabama and Mississippi.
The event is held on the grounds of the 300-acre Moundville Archaeological Park, a historic Native American site and also home to the newly renovated Jones Museum.
Two years after the festival was launched, in 1989, dancers were welcomed to the circle. The move helped define what the festival is all about.
“The festival committee made a conscious decision not to turn the festival into a pow wow. While generally exciting and educational, a pow wow is a hodgepodge of different tribal traditions from all over the country, most especially dances,” said Irwin.
“Since one of the festival’s goals is dispelling stereotypes of Native Americans, we chose to stick with Southeastern Indian dances,” she said. The first dancers at the festival were the West Tennessee Choctaws, headed by the late Wood Bell.
“This year, the Chickasaw Nation Dance Troupe are invited as our ‘official’ stomp dancers, but several people from Florida, Alabama and North Carolina will likely join the fun,” said Irwin.
On the list of performing dancers are Lyndon Alec, hoop dancing, from Livingston, Texas; Bogue Houma Choctaw Dancers, Bogue Houma Mississippi; and Mystic Wind Choctaw Dancers, Philadelphia, Mississippi.
While hoop dancing is not a Southeastern Indian dance, Irwin said they recognize that many modern-day Southeastern Native Americans perform other dances.
“We want to show that Southeastern Indian culture is not stagnant, not just a picture from the past. It is alive, vital and constantly changing as all cultures are through the sharing of knowledge,” she said.
Also, powering the stage at the festival with their flute music are Native American Music Award (NAMMY) winners: Billy Whitefox (Muscogee, Panama City, Florida); Charlie Mato Toyela, (United Cherokee Ani-Yun-Wiya Nation, Slocomb, Alabama); and Sydney Mitchell, (Pinson, Alabama).
Other NAMMY winners returning to the festival are Brad Clonch (flute) and Jeff Carpenter (guitar) of Injunuity and Michael Jacobs, singer/songwriter.
Whitefox, with his flute and gift for storytelling, will join Gayle Ross, great granddaughter of Cherokee Chief John Ross, as she tells Cherokee stories.
“One of the things we are doing is involving The University of Alabama,” said Irwin. Heather Kopelson, assistant professor of the university will be at the festival to answer questions and open people’s eyes about stereotyping Native Americans.
The University of Alabama, through its Museum Systems, runs the festival.
There’s a lot of educating going on at the four-day festival. Living history camps are set up in various locations at the park. “Discover why the fur trade was so important, smell native foods cooking on an open fire or hear an elder describe his journeys through the wilderness,” said a brochure on the festival.
Visitors can also see pottery being pit fired or learn how Choctaws make rivercane baskets. Other Native American experts are on hand to demonstrate their crafts.
Kids of all ages are also given firsthand experience in playing native games like the ancient game of stickball and throwing an Indian football. A Native target range features ancient weapons and bow competition.
“One policy, strictly enforced during every festival, is abundant hospitality. We call the festival a homecoming partly because we’re one big family. We want everyone to be respected, well fed and comfortable,” said Irwin.