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Indian chiefs, resplendent in their headdresses and beaded regalia, carry eagle feather staffs and American flags at the National Cowboy Museum and Western Heritage Center in Oklahoma City (OKC).

Tribe after tribe follow, some garbed in fringed buckskins, others in elaborate beadwork in colorful geometric designs. Most of them have feathers, in headdresses, in double bustles on their backs, and in fans.

Buckskin-clad women at the Red Earth Cultural Festival
Buckskin-clad women at the Red Earth Festival
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Together, more than 1,200 elders, parents, teenagers and little children, are a spellbinding kaleidoscope of color and motion, dancing to the rhythm of drums.

We are witnessing Red Earth, a Native American cultural festival, voted one of the top events in the United States.

Every year, members of more than 100 tribes across the continent join together to celebrate and share with the world the richness and diversity of their heritage. Red Earth 2024 festival dates are March 22-24.

The focus of the Oklahoma City festival, for most of the participants, is the dance showcase. The dancers at Red Earth are the elite of Native American dancers — the most gifted and accomplished in the world. They compete in several dance categories and age groups, for thousands of dollars in prize money.

Dance showcase

Dancers imitate movements of eagles and porcupines in northern traditional dance competition.
Dancers imitate movements of eagles and porcupines in northern traditional dance competition.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

For spectators, it's one of the few opportunities to see both northern and southern tribes dancing together. We watch, in awe, as each group competes: the disciplined, graceful movements of the ladies' traditional buckskin dance; the flowing fringes and ribbons on the dresses of the grass dancers, reminiscent of the long, blowing range in the prairies; the frenzied movements of the men's fancy war dance; and the musical clinking of the metallic tube fringes on the dresses of the jingle dancers.

While dancers are judged on their individual merits, such as their skills in imitating eagles or porcupines, they are all evaluated on their ability to dance in time with the beating of the drums.

Feather headdresses

The headdresses of many of the men, for example, are topped with one or two feathers, mounted in rockers, which must move back and forth, with the motion of the head, to the pounding of the drums.

"They dance because it's a celebration of life," explains a Kiowa Indian, who's one of the participants. "When we're being created, there's only one thing we can hear, and that's the heart beat of our mothers," he continues. "That drum beat represents the heart beat of our mothers and of Mother Earth and, as human beings, we find the sound very comforting."

Beaded moccasins

Following each dance performance, the announcer invites the audience to join the dancers. It's a wonderful opportunity for close-up views of the beaded moccasins, bear-claw necklaces, feathered fans and headdresses. No two outfits are alike, yet together, the overall effect is mesmerizing.

Native American father and child
Native American father and child
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Youngsters, decorated with beads and feathers, dance side-by-side with fierce-looking men, their faces painted with startling designs. Many of the men and women carry babies.

The concrete literally vibrates under our feet, as thousands of moccasins pound the floor, in time to the drums.

Native American art work

We take photo after photo. So do the participants. Tradition keeps company with technology as dancers, wearing face paint and long braids, make videos of other dancers.

In spite of its spectacle, dancing is only part of the focus of Red Earth. Sharing equal prominence are an art market, hands-on art activities and an art competition and awards dinner.

Portrait of Native American man in tribal regalia
Portrait of Native American man in tribal regalia
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Visitors can view and purchase beadwork, basketry, pottery, sculptures, paintings, graphics, and jewelry from celebrated artists and craftsmen.


Children haven't been forgotten, either, with activities like face-painting, games, and the making of bracelets, chokers and dream catchers (circular hoops, with a spider web-like mesh of string, designed to catch good thoughts and dreams and allow bad ones to fall through).

Kids, as well as adults, can also enjoy drumming and dancing at the Grand Parade on Indigenous People's Day in downtown OKC at the Myriad Gardens. The event is held in conjuction with the FallFest Powwow.

Such activities are designed to give visitors a tangible expression of American Indian culture. While you can certainly enjoy Red Earth as a spectator, the only way to derive full benefit from it, is to participate in the activities and talk to the people.

We talked to a Native American man waiting to compete on the dance floor. He explained that the colors of his ceremonial dress symbolize the six primary directions, including straight up and straight down.

Lonny Street explained how he and his wife work the Powwow circuits, during the summer, supporting themselves with prize money from dancing. (During the winter he constructs houses.) Both he and his wife are teaching their daughter their native languages and cultures.

Native American wears face paint and feathered headdress.
Native American wears face paint and feathered headdress.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Native American face paint

Street hopes that Red Earth dispels "the stereotypes that Hollywood has plagued us with for generations." Take face-painting, for example.

"It's not war paint," he states. "It's a spiritual protection given to us by our fathers and grandfathers, just as Christians wear crosses," he claims. "They paint the design on us the first time, during a ceremony, then we paint ourselves in the same fashion afterwards, for protection.

"Similarly, when Indians burn sage and cedar and bless themselves with it, people tend to think it's magical, like voodoo," he says, "but it's the same thing Catholics do with incense and holy water."

Suddenly, the full impact of the festival became apparent to us. On the surface, Red Earth Native American Cultural Festival is about the best of the best in Native American dancing and art.

Delving deeper, Red Earth is about people. It's about understanding — not so much our differences, but rather, our similarities.


Red Earth: www.redearth.org