American Indian festival celebrates 20 years

Osceoola Mullin, 44, of the Lumbee tribe dresses in traditional dress during the American Indian Heritage Festival.
Osceoola Mullin, 44, of the Lumbee tribe dresses in traditional dress during the American Indian Heritage Festival. jalexander@newsobserver.com

Twenty years ago, when the inaugural American Indian Heritage Festival kicked off, not even 1,000 people attended, festival coordinator Emily Grant said.

It recently hit 10,000 people in one day, and on Saturday organizers said it looked likely to reach that number – if not more – as people gathered at the N.C. Museum of History to celebrate the heritage of the first to settle in America.

“It’s really important to know where you come from,” Grant said.

Different groups and tribes danced to their traditional music in their traditional clothing. Some tribal members shared their history with those in attendance, some told stories.

Grant, the youth and family programs coordinator for the museum, said it takes a lot of volunteers to put on the festival. She said an advisory committee of American Indians meets once a month to make sure history is being interpreted correctly.

“Events like this connect the past with the present,” she said. “How we evolve and change in the future. Our mission at the N.C. Museum of History is to really preserve and provide the opportunity for people to understand their past and see where they come from.”

Gwen Locklear, the coordinator for the Wake County PSS Title VII Indian Education Program, grew up in Robeson County.

Saturday, she taught adults and children the importance of story telling. Locklear said during the early times when Indians settled in America, there was not a written language. Indians told stories through pictures instead of words.

Each story taught something. One story was of a curious turtle who wanted to know why birds fly south in the winter.

The turtle took a trip down south with couple of birds, Locklear said. In order to get there, the two birds carried a stick between them, while the turtle bit down on the stick.

As they traveled, the turtle was aggravated that the birds were not talking to him. Eventually he tried to communicate with the birds and fell off the stick because it opened its mouth.

The turtle cracked its shell and was hurt badly. It went to a nearby pond and went to sleep under water through the winter.

The moral of the story was to teach the children that turtles hibernate in the winter.

“That was a way to share history and culture,” Locklear said. “You’d share things that happened in the past with your family and in the community and they passed those stories down.”

Locklear said that aside from teaching people about the culture, it’s important for people to know that American Indians are still here.

“We may not be large in number,” she said. “We’re like the invisible minority – so to speak – because we don’t walk around with feathers and buckskin. So it’s hard for us to be readily identified as being Indian in the community.”

In North Carolina, there are 122,000 American Indians representing eight tribes, 4,000 of them in Wake County, according to 2012 U.S. census data. That number is the highest of states east of the Mississippi River.

The eight state-recognized tribes are the Coharie, Lumbees of North Carolina, Eastern Band of Cherokee, Haliwa-Saponi, Meherrin, Sappony, Occaneechi Band of Saponi Nation and the Waccamaw Siouan.

Josee Richardson, 34, attended the event with her family. It was her second time at the event, and this time her daughter danced a traditional dance for the crowd.

Richardson and her family are of the Haliwa-Saponi Tribe. She said it’s nice to see everyone learning about her heritage.

“It makes me happy and that’s the part I enjoy most,” Richardson said. “People coming together and learning about the different cultures. We’re willing to teach anyone willing to learn about our culture.”

Jonathan M. Alexander: 919-829-4822, @GarnerCleveland