Festival highlights Native American culture

MOUNDVILLE- Sisters Jessie and Claudia Thompson work together with dress making and beadwork at the annual Native American Festival at Moundville Archeological Park Oct. 11, 2012. (Photo by: Rachel Williams, JN 261)



By Kelcey Sexton | Contributing Writer

MOUNDVILLE | A line of Chickasaw Nation dancers shuffles arm-in-arm with members of the audience in front of the Moundville Native American Festival performance stage. The intimate line of dancers circles and winds around, forming a huddle of dancing bodies. The female Chickasaw dancers move their feet, rattling the turtle shells bound to their ankles, while the men sing in a native tongue to the sky above.

This was one of many scenes to be witnessed at The Moundville Archaeological Park’s 23rd annual Native American Festival. The park, which is part of The University of Alabama Museums, hosted this year’s Native American Festival last Wednesday, Oct. 10, through Saturday, Oct. 13.

The Native American Festival usually welcomes more than 200 Native Americans and experts into the park each year and showcases crafts, storytelling, dance, music and more.

Betsy Irwin, the Moundville Native American Festival director, said this year they were particularly excited to announce the Chickasaw Nation Dance Troupe’s participation in the festivities. She said they were thrilled, as this was the first time a large Chickasaw Indian presence would be at the Native American Festival.

“We’ve had dancers that were Creek and/or Seminole, Choctaw and Cherokee at the festival before, but we’ve never had Chickasaw dancers,” she said. “A goal of the festival is to have as many different Southeastern Indian tribes represented as possible.” 

Irwin, who has worked with the Moundville Archaeological Park for 21 years, said the park has invited the dance troupe to the Native American Festival in the past. However, the timing of the Chickasaw Nation’s Annual Meeting, their largest event, and the festival have always conflicted. Luckily, this year was an exception, and she wrote the governor of the Chickasaw Nation, asking him to encourage the dancing troupe to attend, she said.

“Our events won’t coincide next year, so we hope to have them back at least once more,” she said. “We want the Chickasaw Nation and all other Southeastern Indian
people to always feel welcome at the festival.”

Amy Bluemel, a five-year dancer with the Chickasaw Dance Troupe and a Chickasaw storyteller, said the dance troupe’s experience at the Moundville Native American Festival has been enjoyable.

“The people have been welcoming and kind, and there are nice people and beautiful arts,” she said. “We’d love to [come back], and we’re hoping to be back if they’ll have us. We’re all excited, and it’s been just wonderful to be here.”

The Chickasaw Dance Troupe travels, performing one of the most traditional styles of Southeastern Native American dancing called “stomp dancing.” It incorporates “shakers” made of turtle shells or tin pet milk cans that are tied to the lower legs of the women dancers and make noise as they dance. The dance troupe demonstrated stomp dancing at the festival, which the public was invited to experience firsthand and even take part in if they wanted.

Bluemel said different Chickasaw traditional dances are done for different reasons. The traditional stomp dance is often done for prayer, harvest or health. However, she said it can be done for other reasons, as displayed at the festival.

“We have traditional ceremonial grounds,” she said. “Then we have social grounds or social dances, where it’s not as formal, and it’s for people to mix and get to know each other.”

Tamra Williams, a 23-year-old Chickasaw Nation dancer in the troupe, has been dancing since she was 7 years old. She said she began dancing when her father started taking her to the Kullihoma Grounds of the Chickasaw Nation.

“I picked it up and had some itty-bitty shells on, and one of our dance troupe leaders taught me how to start shaking,” she said.

Williams said she will continue dancing with the Chickasaw Dance Troupe “as long as [her] legs keep walking.” She also said it has been nice to take part in the four-day festival and to take time to share their ways of doing things with other Native American nations and to learn from them as well.

Irwin said that the Chickasaw Nation Foundation has supported the Moundville Archaeological Park in the past through several moderate donations, helping with the creation of new exhibits.

“We have a great relationship with their cultural preservation department and believe that having the dance troupe come to the festival helps to further promote that relationship,” she said.