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Dancing for My Mom at Red Earth

© 2016 Carolyn B Young, Terrapin Races Rabbit II, 10×5″, stoneware

Red Earth is an event dear to my heart.  It is an organization committed to promoting the rich traditions of American Indian arts and cultures through their museum and fine art markets.  For 30 years, the Red Earth Festival has showcased Native American artists and dancers during its 3-day event in Oklahoma City.  I was honored to be awarded 1st Place in Contemporary Pottery this year for my lidded jar titled, Terrapin Races Rabbit II.

For the first time ever, I danced in the Grand Entry, dressed in traditional Choctaw regalia.  You may have seen traditional Native American dancers or witnessed a Grand Entry and thought it colorful and entertaining.  Have you wondered about the different “costumes” (for the record, the correct term is “regalia”) and dance styles?  Let me tell you a little of what I have learned.

A Pow Wow, sometimes called a Festival, is a gathering of Native American tribes to celebrate with singing and dancing to honor their cultures. A Grand Entry is held at the beginning of each session – usually one on Friday night, two on Saturday (noon and after dinner), and one on Sunday afternoon. The dance arena is first blessed and is considered sacred ground for the duration of the celebration.

Red Earth Grand Entry Eagle Staff
Red Earth Grand Entry Eagle Staff
Red Earth Grand Entry Flag Bearers
Red Earth Grand Entry Flag Bearers

Eagle Staff Leads the Grand Entry

followed by Flag Bearers carrying  the American flag, state & tribal flags, and often the MIA-POW flag. Everyone is asked to stand and dancers are reminded they are “dancing for their ancestors”.  The procession continues in a circle around the arena, adding ever more dancers, matching their steps to the beat of the drums. Once all the dancers are in the arena, a song honors the Eagle Staff and flags. A prayer is offered, followed by a victory song while the Eagle Staff and flags are placed in their standards.

Each group of dancers is led by a Head Dancer, who represents their particular style of dancing. Head Dancers are selected for his or her knowledge of tribal traditions and customs, as well as their own dance reputation. It is an honor to be chosen Head Dancer, to serve as leader and model for the rest of the dancers. Our Head Dancer was Carol Ayers (in yellow), a fellow Choctaw artist, friend, and the one who mentored me through the Grand Entry process. Her last words to us as we entered the arena were, “Hold your heads high ladies, we are dancing for our ancestors!”  And we did.

Dancing for My Mom!

Red Earth Grand Entry Choctaw Ladies
Red Earth Grand Entry – Women’s Southern Cloth

Tears of joy streamed down my face, yet I couldn’t stop smiling.  I was dancing in the Grand Entry at Red Earth – for my mom! My dress was a traditional Choctaw dress with apron, hand made by fellow Choctaw artist Judy Davis.

Notice the diamond pattern, found throughout Choctaw culture.  It is the Choctaw symbol for respect for nature and is found somewhere on almost every piece I make. The exquisite beaded collar and earrings were created especially for me by Chester Cowen, fellow Choctaw artist and tribal historian.  The feather fan I carried was purchased in the Badlands of South Dakota and hand made by a Navajo artist. My shawl with the 18″ fringe was purchased in Oklahoma.

Close up of Choctaw diamond pattern on the dress and the beaded collar.
Close up of Choctaw diamond pattern on the dress and beaded collar.
Other women’s dance divisions include Northern Traditional, Fancy Shawl, Jingle Dress and Buckskin.  Men’s divisions include Northern Traditional, Southern Traditional, Fancy Dance, and Grass Dance.  Depending on the location, inter-tribal and community dances may also be included such as the Southern Plains Gourd Dance, a society dance for veterans and their families.
I am no expert, but this reflects what I have learned. Tribes have their own social dances and ritual dances that may or may not be performed for the public.
For me, this experience touched my soul.  I hope my sharing it gives you a peek into the rich culture of Native Americans.
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Yakoke! (Thank you)
Carolyn Bernard Young
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  1. Halito! It’s so nice to see Chahta culture represented at a powwow. Many people assume the traditional dress for all tribes is some sort of beaded leather. I love examples that showcase the variety of tribal culture. (But I have to admit those Plains tribes have a lot of style!) Thanks for being an ambassador for our heritage and culture! Yakoke

    1. Halito Heather! I agree SE Indians aren’t as well known – and those Jingle dresses and buckskins are truly stunning. But Chahtas have a lot to be proud of and I am delighted to be a small part of it. Yakoke!

  2. Carolyn – thanks so much for this insight into the Choctaw culture and rituals. I know you were very proud to do this dance for your mother. I can’t imagine that emotional connection. And I learned something about your pottery, too. I’ll be looking for that Choctaw diamond in your pieces! Great post.

  3. Halito! Chim achukma?
    Living in the Northeast all my life, it’s a rare delight to find other Chahta. My father taught me well to be proud of our native relatives, but he knew little of tradition. Searching and learning on my own, I often wonder if what I read (hence, know) is authentic.
    You might consider this a small article, but I found such delightful information, both enlightening and confirming, setting my feet firmly upon paths to learn specific dances, understand the similarities and differences of Grand Entry Choctaw tradition to the tribal traditions of my Northeast brothers and sisters, and a direction for beading my own collar, as well as refurbish a hand-made regalia dress to appropriately fit me, and honor my Mississippi/Louisiana ancestors.
    Please do write more. Ome!

    1. Vm achukma hoke Martha! Chishnato? Your lovely note brought tears to my eyes. Thank you so much for taking the time to write. It means a great deal to me and I’m so happy you found it enlightening and confirming. Like you, I am still learning the traditions and culture of our Chahta and I feel bound to share what I learn. I haven’t written this month because of all the hurricanes, fires, and devastation, but plan to do so soon. My next post will be about traditional Choctaw pottery firing.
      Chi pisa la chike!

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