Colorful performers shine at Native American festival

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RADFORD — The Red Fire Singers, a group of local drummers, were seated around a large drum, singing and pounding out a spirited pulse Saturday at a traditional gathering of Native Americans at Bisset Park.

Performer Arvel Bird, a descendant of western tribesmen, stopped by the drum circle to place a handful of herbs in the center of the drum’s head.

Dressed in elaborate garb, Emerson Begay of Tennessee dominates the pow-wow circle as he dances Saturday.  Begay uses black paint to mask his eyes when he dons his dance costume. Photo by Pat Brown.
Dressed in elaborate garb, Emerson Begay of Tennessee dominates the pow-wow circle as he dances Saturday. Begay uses black paint to mask his eyes when he dons his dance costume. Photo by Pat Brown.

“I’m giving thanks for the drum,” he explained. “The drum is a living entity containing the spirits of animals and plants.”

Bird wore a decorative leather suit, moccasins and a headband. Many of the people who participated in the ceremonies and dances were in costumes that ranged from slightly decorated to full feathered regalia.

Chanting for a variety of dancers, drumming with long sticks as first one group and then another entered and danced around the pow-wow circle, the Red Fire Singers were busy all afternoon.

Drummer and singer Tony Nelson, of Christiansburg, said his percussion group practices monthly. While the drum circle included a dozen residents of Montgomery and Pulaski counties. All the Red Fire Singers are part Native American, descended from Eastern tribes like the Cherokee, Saponi or Tutelo, Nelson explained.

Mike Jarrels, of Pulaski, acted as leader of the circle for most of the afternoon, readying the group for the start of each song, singing out the first chant and pointing to other singers to pick up the call.

Women wearing traditional garb take to the dance circle. Dancer Linda Ward of Swords Creek, Va., is joined by others before performing. Photo by Pat Brown.
Women wearing traditional garb take to the dance circle. Dancer Linda Ward of Swords Creek, Va., is joined by others before performing. Photo by Pat Brown.

Kyle Ellingsen, a Radford University freshman, was there to perform the strenuous grass dance with his friend Alex Nesbitt, of Sumter, S. C. Their heavily fringed costumes represent grass, he explained, because young boys were traditionally responsible for mashing down grasses at hunting grounds and battle sites. Ellingsen and Nesbitt became interested in Native American lore when they were Boy Scouts and members of that organization’s elite Order of the Arrow.

“We’ve been doing real pow-wows for about seven years now,” said Nesbitt.

Josh and Kelly Cottrell came from Weston, West Virginia, to allow their daughters to enter the dance circle for the fist time. Emmalee, 8, and Adriann, 9, were escorted into the circle by the Head Man and Head Woman of the day, Doug and Debbie Carter of Sumter, S.C. After they had danced around the circle they formed a receiving line to accept congratulations from the crowd.

“We just want to make them aware of our heritage,” said Josh Cottrell. Both parents have Cherokee ancestors.

Mike Jarrels of Pulaski, left center, leads the Red Fire Singers and their guest, Emerson Begay, right center, wearing a painted facemask and dance regalia.  Also around the drum are, to the right of Begay and from left: Sam Saulnier of Blacksburg, Kanawha Jarels of Cana, Va., an unidentified singer and, front left, Barry Lane of Pulaski. Photo by Pat Brown.
Mike Jarrels of Pulaski, left center, leads the Red Fire Singers and their guest, Emerson Begay, right center, wearing a painted facemask and dance regalia. Also around the drum are, to the right of Begay and from left: Sam Saulnier of Blacksburg, Kanawha Jarels of Cana, Va., an unidentified singer and, front left, Barry Lane of Pulaski. Photo by Pat Brown.

Lowery Begay of Tennessee performed a hoop dance during which he spun hoops and formed shapes with them. Before the dance was over, he employed ten hoops into his moves. His brother, Emerson Begay, told the crowd that Lowery had come in second at a world championship hoop dance competition.

Costumed and elegant as they danced, women at the gathering got numerous chances to shine in the dance circle. Linda Ward came from Swords Creek, Virginia. A Mattaponi, she said her Indian name is “Swift Fawn.” Aio Sifu came from Newport News to enjoy the pow-wow dancing. She said she is descended from Muskogee Creek and Cherokee tribes.

Children were invited into the dance circle for candy, but they had to follow the instructions of the master of ceremonies, John Jeffries. When the drummers played, the kids could not touch the candy sprinkled temptingly throughout the circle. When the drummers stopped, Jeffries chanted, “Pick it up, pick it up.”

“Compliments of your local orthodontist,” Jeffries joked.

Earlier in the afternoon Jeffries had asked the crowd to, “Give the creator, our grandfather, a round of applause for this beautiful day.”

The event began with three special songs: The grand entry, a flag song and a veteran’s song, as Nelson said 60 percent of Native Americans serve in the military.

Billy Breeden of Christiansburg was excited to be attending the gathering. In spite of his great-grandmother being full-blooded Cherokee, he said he had never attended a pow-wow.

“I love the music, and there is so much freedom and peace here,” he said. He bought a necklace from one of the vendors set up a small distance from the dance circle.

Bud and Ann Jeffries of Ingles Farm in Radford stopped by the pow-wow to take in the sights and sounds.

“This is fascinating to us,” said Ann Jeffries, “and the public is really enjoying it.”

Bud Jeffries said he attended to support the community, particularly the Radford Tourism Center, sponsor of the event.

Larry and Sandy Findley came to the gathering, too. A music teacher at McHarg and Belle Heth Schools in Radford, Sandy Findlay wanted to experience the music, especially since she incorporates lessons on Native American music in her classes.

“I saw Arvel Bird in Abingdon,” she added. Using flutes and a fiddle, Bird performed songs, shared stories and offered Native American philosophies during his performances at the pow-wow.

Deb Cooney, Radford’s director of tourism, said attendance was good.

“A lot of people are saying that there are more people here this year,” she said. The Bisset Park site was especially appropriate, she explained, because artifacts unearthed there indicate it was once a gathering spot for Native Americans.

Pow-wows serve to remind Native Americans of their ancient heritage, but these days people can use the most modern means for keeping in touch with scheduled gatherings. Lowery Begay recommended two web sites: www.powwows.com and www.500nations.com.

“You just punch in your state,” to find the next close pow-wow, he explained.

By Pat Brown