TAHLEQUAH, Okla. - "I've never seen so many Indians in one place in my life!" the young man said. It was a joke between friends who had traveled from Texas, back to their homeland, but he was probably right.
An estimated crowd of more than 150,000 made the annual pilgrimage to the Cherokee Nation's historic capital in Tahlequah to renew old friendships and celebrate the Cherokee spirit. The 48th Annual Cherokee National Holiday over the Labor Day weekend was a combination family reunion and cultural awareness event rolled into one. There were Indians, everywhere!
The city of Tahlequah rolled out the red carpet for Native Americans from all over Indian country. Tahlequah, nestled in the rolling lake country of east central Oklahoma, presented guests with activities like hiking and fishing to fill in between Cherokee Nation events. Non-Indians were in the minority, but those attending were welcomed with open arms since Cherokee National Holiday is a time of renewal and brotherhood.
Thousands of children attended the weekend with parents and grandparents, and not one 'I'm bored,' could be heard. The three-day celebration is jam-packed with activities, traditional and otherwise.
During an intertribal pow wow on the Cherokee Nation Cultural Grounds dancers from all over the area joined head man Josh Ahhaitty, Kiowa, and head woman Pauline Tsosie, Otoe/Quapaw, in the competition. A gently sloping hill surrounds the natural grass arena.
Hundreds of vendors and craftsmen set up in the trees surrounding the Cherokee Heritage Center. Almost anything, it appeared, could be purchased - from ribbon shirts to handmade wooden spoons.
A few miles down the road, the Region 8 All Indian Rodeo Finals were filled with action. Despite the sweltering heat, rodeo fans crowded the stands in the evening as cowboys and cowgirls competed on bulls, barrels and broncs.
Across the highway from the rodeo grounds, trees on one side and a school on the other, voices of stomp dancers rang out, along with laughter from those who surrounded the dance area. Stomp dancing is a strictly social event, although there is some competition throughout the country, most who participate say it's a social gathering.
Hundreds of empty lawn chairs sat, side-by-side, in the darkness. A bonfire in the middle of the area reflected eerily on the faces as participants sang and danced.
With no artificial lighting close by, it could have been a scene from another century, except for the glimpse of an athletic shoe or baseball cap as the line of dancers sped by. Each dance ended with laughter and camaraderie as one group sat down to cool off and another group entered the dance area.
This was a very special place for many of the Cherokee who attended the National Holiday. Even for those who have not grown up with stomp dancing, it is difficult not to be drawn in by the music and the laughter. Stomp dances begin at dark and go until daylight and are an important part of the Cherokee's rich heritage and tradition. Dancers of all ages join in to have fun and sing with family and friends as they celebrate their culture.
Triple-digit temperatures didn't slow the Cherokee spirit as hundreds found a competition to suit them. For some it was the golf tournament, for others it was the lure of nearby lakes and fishing contests.
Still others competed in the fiddlers' contest and the cornstalk shoot. The hot summer weekend meant a good round of horseshoes or marbles for some. When a Cherokee talks about marbles, forget the little ones you played with in the schoolyard. These things look like billiard balls and they are played in an area surrounded by straw bales.
Cherokee National Holiday is a chance for Cherokees from throughout the United States to head home and gather strength from each other. No matter what the competition, there were even more who stood ready to cheer them on and congratulate the winners and console the losers.
For those who needed a break from the heat, the Cherokee Heritage Center was cool and welcome relief from the oppressive heat and offered visitors a glimpse of the great history of the Cherokee people.
The elders weren't forgotten. Original enrollees were honored during the celebration, as were artists, businessmen and celebrities. As the largest Native American nation, the Cherokee have hundreds, if not thousands of members who are known beyond the capital of the Cherokee Nation.
Volunteers throughout the three-day holiday gave tours of the Cherokee Complex. Smiling volunteers like Mary Meade made visitors feel at home as they offered refreshments and stories about the Cherokee people.
One of those attending the holiday was a grandmother from Scranton, Kan. "We've always known we were Cherokee," she said, "So this year we just grabbed the grandkids and came down to see what this was all about. Wow!"
Wow! may be the best description for this extravaganza. It is an unforgettable experience for any Native American - but plan early, rooms are booked a year in advance!