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Red Earth Festival Draws Eyes From Around the World

The Red Earth Festival went worldwide yet again as cameras and mics from around the globe turned to the celebration of Native American culture this past June 3-5 in Oklahoma City, OK.

When this year’s Silver Anniversary Red Earth Native American Cultural Festival opened on June 3, the spectacular parade gathered 100 tribes from all over North America. The proud procession through the streets, and the showcase of dance and art in the convention center for the next three days, attracted news crews from foreign countries.

This year it was journalists from Germany, Scotland and the United Kingdom who trekked in. In years past, Russian and Chinese reporters met in the journalism pool.

Red Earth, Inc. Deputy Director Eric Oesch said there seems to be tremendous interest in American Indian culture among people in other countries.

“Their readers are real appreciative of Indian arts and dance and culture, because they don’t have it,” Oesch said. “They come here and their readers just eat it up. We like to make them feel welcome at Red Earth. Our whole intention, the reason why Red Earth is held, is to share culture.”

Red Earth, Inc is a nonprofit organization that is not affiliated with one particular tribe, but works across all Nations to promote Native American arts and culture. Because the festival draws as many as 30,000 people, its Red Earth Market is a crucial venue to the 200 artists who showcase their work for sale.

The Red Earth Festival was named this year as One of 10 Great Places to Celebrate American Indian Cultureby USA Today. Board of Directors President G. Calvin Sharpe (Seminole Nation of Oklahoma), couldn’t agree more.

“It’s still Indian Country, as I refer to it,” remarked Sharpe, an attorney in Oklahoma City. “The state’s still pretty young and there are 39 recognized tribes here in the state, and on top of that, you get other tribes from across the United States and Canada that come in, particularly for the dance competition. You also get artists from all across the nation.”

The festival is Red Earth, Inc.’s main fund-raiser supporting a museum that is open every day throughout the year with a permanent collection of historic artifacts as well as shows of contemporary art. The museum also hosts educational programs for adults and children.

Tourism Is Oklahoma’s third-largest industry, and never is the focus more intensified on Native American culture than during Red Earth.

Some foreign media members contact the Red Earth office months in advance to set up press credentials and collect information -- and then there was the writer from Yemen three years ago who “just showed up, and didn’t want any help,” Oesch said.

“Last year we had an aboriginal journalist from Australia,” Oesch said. “She was comparing the aboriginal culture in Australia to the aboriginal culture in the United States and she was traveling across the country. She said she was so impressed with how far the native people had come in America, because the aboriginal people in Australia had not been treated as well.”

“Voice of America” radio from China attended one recent year and dubbed an interview with Oesch into Mandarin for broadcast in China.

This year, German public radio station WDR sent a reporter who interviewed dancers and singers. “He was real enthusiastic and he was enamored with the culture,” Oesch said. “The German folks have a great appreciation for native cultures.”

News of the World’s Scotland edition had a reporter on scene, as did a British Sunday tabloid.

The dance competition at Red Earth is itself a bridge, bringing distinct groups together for a common cause. In this case it’s not reporting on the event, but participating in it.

“One thing kind of unique about Red Earth is that we feature both Northern and Southern tribes in their dances and songs. There are not a lot of pow wows and dance competitions that do that,” said Oesch.

Red Earth Art Market every year displays some of the most celebrated native artists in America. The juried show featured beadwork, basketry, jewelry, pottery, sculpture, paintings, graphics and cultural attire.

A grand parade through the streets of downtown Oklahoma City opened the 25th Annual Red Earth Festival on Friday morning. Members of 100 tribes from the United States and Canada took part in full regalia. Imagine drum groups, tribal officials and princesses, floats, high school bands and community groups together in one massive procession, and you get the picture of why this parade draws journalists from all over the world.

For three days, the festival of brought a breadth of art and culture to Oklahoma City that would be hard to match in any other weekend-long event.

The Comanche National Museum and Cultural Center, the Seminole Nation Museum, and the Citizen Potawatomi Cultural Center and Museum conducted hands-on children’s learning experiences throughout the weekend.

For the dance competition, Master of Ceremony duties were shared by Jim Clairmont (Lakota) and Tom Phillips (Kiowa/Creek). Arena Director was Graham Primeaux (Sac and Fox). Dance Coordinator was Randy Frazier (Prairie Band Potawatomi.)

The Choctaw Nation Honor Guard was the Color Guard for Red Earth 2011. Host Drums were Stoney Park, Cozad, and The Boyz.Invited Drums wereYellow Hammer, Headstone, and Young Buffalo Horse.

The festival got its start in 1987 after a different attraction left Oklahoma City.

“Oklahoma City at that time had just lost the National Finals Rodeo to Las Vegas,” explained Oesch. “It was a big deal. It had brought a lot of money to the town. We lost that – Las Vegas offered them a whole bunch of money to hold the rodeo there.

“So there was a group of Native American community leaders, Oklahoma City civic leaders, the tourism department, educators both Indian and non-Indian, people from the Oklahoma Arts Council and Oklahoma tourism department – Oklahoma City is probably the world’s largest small town, everybody knows everybody – who got together and said, ‘We’re not just cowboys; what else are we known for: Indians, of course.’”

The continuation of that thought was that so many Indian artists in Oklahoma had to travel far to sell their artwork, but an event in town would feature the artists and give them an outlet, Oesch said. And a big dance competition was planned too.

“We’re proud that we’ve been in existence for 25 years; a lot of events don’t last that long,” Sharpe observed. “Red Earth has great support from our board and volunteers. That allows Native American art to have the exposure that it gets, and it really highlights and exposes everyone to the Native American Indian culture.”

Oklahoma Supreme Justice Yvonne Kauger was recognized as the 2011 Red Ambassador of the Year. As the festival’s co-founder, Kauger is known as “The Mother of Red Earth.” Over the years, the ambassador honor has gone to both native and non-native recipients, and Kauger is among those in the latter category who are well-thought-of among many tribal communities, Red Earth spokespersons said.

As the tribute to her on the Red Earth web site summarized, “She has worked tirelessly in an individual capacity to inform and educate the general public on the contributions of Native Americans. For at least 24 years she has promoted a more positive image of all Native Americans and knows how important Red Earth is in showcasing and preserving the tradition, history and languages of Native Americans.”

The Red Earth Ambassador award is represented by a bronze sculpture created by award-winning Native American artist Troy Anderson. Previous Ambassadors have included Ted Turner, founder of CNN (1996); actor Wes Studi (1998); author N. Scott Momaday (1999); Charles Chibitty (2001); NASA astronaut John Herrington (2003); and Betty Price, Oklahoma Arts Council (2004).

Traditional artist Ruthe Blalock Jones was named the 2011 Red Earth Festival Honored One (see separate story.)

To see more pictures and information, the web site is