OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. - The Red Earth Festival in Oklahoma City drew dancers and artists from all over Indian country. Drums from as far away as Virginia took part in the three-day celebration of tradition, dance and art.
Billy Mills, Lakota, Olympic 10,000-meter gold medalist, was named Red Earth Ambassador of the Year for his work in promoting a more positive image of Native Americans around the country. Joan Hill, Creek artist, was named Red Earth Honored One. Hill has won more awards than any other Native American woman artist in the country.
Mills' challenge to Native American businessmen and women to become patrons for Native American artists throughout the county brought a standing ovation from the huge crowd at the Gala Celebration Honoring American Indian Artists. He called for Native American entrepreneurs to buy and display the art of Indigenous artists.
Recalling a visit to the World Olympic Museum in Barcelona, Spain, Mills noted paintings and sculptures of African-Americans, American athletes of European ancestry and paintings and sculptures of athletes who had never won gold medals. He also noticed there were no paintings of Native American athletes such as Mills and Jim Thorpe.
He said that he realized no paintings or sculptures of Indigenous people from anywhere in the world were in the museum.
"I asked where do these paintings come from? Where do these sculptures come from?" He was told they came from Corporate America gone global.
"The challenge lies within us as Indigenous people," Mills said. "Native American artists are chosen by the gods ... commission our great artists and display their work, so 300 million Indigenous people traveling worldwide can learn and others can learn about us as Indigenous people."
The Thursday art show and competition were a part of the June 9-11 celebration, with more than 270 artists competing for prizes. On Friday the streets of downtown Oklahoma City came alive with the sights and sounds of Native Americans. In traditional regalia, dancers and dignitaries traveled the canyons of skyscrapers in an hour-long parade. Tribal leaders, pow wow princesses and dancers waved to crowds that swelled into the thousands.
The Red Earth Pow Wow is billed as the largest in the country, but some dispute that claim. Another pow wow at the fairgrounds also drew dancers. Some said they shy away from Red Earth because of the conditions in the dance arena.
"I've gone before, but they don't have any mats on the floors. It was like dancing on concrete, it really makes your legs hurt," said Bev Moran, Northern Traditional dancer. "That is why I didn't go this year."
There was some discontent among the nearly 300 vendors, artists and visitors when the exhibition hall was closed by 7 p.m. "They closed up the exhibition hall and now we can't get refreshments to the dancers," a woman working with the Red Earth Committee said. "They said they were going to have Gourd dancing this evening, but they are still competing. Those dancers are going to want refreshments. I guess that is what happens when non-Indians put on a pow wow."
A visitor from California couldn't believe she had come to Red Earth and couldn't shop in the vendor area because it was closed. "I can't believe ... I can't buy anything," Dale Frye Sherman said.
Attendance for Friday night competition was sparse, with more empty seats than full ones. However, Saturday's grand entry was estimated to be the largest ever.
Caroline Hogan, marketing manager, said totals for the three-day celebration weren't in, but she expected them to be substantial. Hogan said it was not true that non- American Indians were in charge of Red Earth.
"Unfortunately when you have a huge event like this you are always going to have someone who is not happy. I haven't heard any complaints. If they would come to us, we are the ones who can fix it."
Hogan went on to say that Native Americans on the committee for Red Earth have made changes, but they won't come overnight. Next year's festival is expected to be even better than this year's.
But for many Oklahomans and others attending Red Earth, these are trivial things. They came for the gathering of many nations in one place.