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Experiences

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The Excitement of Indian Relay

As America’s oldest known competition, Indian Relay, is currently exploding in popularity, receiving long past-due recognition as one of the world’s most exciting extreme sports. Races begin with up to eight athletes riding bareback around a track at full speed. Once around, the riders barely slow as they leap from their horses to a second horse to continue the race. The teams’ handlers are tasked with catching their first powerful animal under the risk of disqualification. After a third chaotic changeover, the riders race toward the finish line, topping speeds of 40 miles per hour.

The All Nations Indian Relay Championships are the culmination of 16 grueling competitions held June through September each year across Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, South Dakota and Minnesota. Tribal nations throughout these states put up relay teams and risk it all for the pride of tradition and the glory of the win. Indian relay dates back more than 400 years to when the horse was first re-introduced to the native cultures of the Americas.

Indian relays may have developed independently within many Indian nations; different cultures have varying oral histories of its origin and most likely, they are all true representations. To one tribe, the relay’s games simulated war trials; to another, a buffalo hunt; a third views it as a way to outrun the wild horses, enabling their capture. Whatever the origins of the relay, the importance of it and the horse to the Plains tribes cannot be understated. The horse was transportation, it enabled sustenance and it provided protection. The horse was considered sacred by many native cultures and revered by all. It was a major source of status and a most sought after prize. The Indian Relay provided the measure to test the horse, the rider and the team.

The All Nations Indian Relay Championships takes place annually, mid-to-late September in Billings, Montana.  It is the largest gathering to ever witness an Indian horse relay, with the best inter-tribal competition ever assembled competing for the largest purses ever offered. More than 30,000 fans attend this standing room only event. 

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Pow Wows

Pow wows began as a way for nations to come together to celebrate success in hunting or battle. Today, they are an opportunity to share tradition and reconnect to culture and family; dance plays a big role in pow wow ceremonies, as does drum music. The term “pow wow” comes from the Narrtick word for “medicine man,” pau wau. (Narrtick is the language spoken by the Algonquian people of Massachusetts.) In the 20th century, pow wows were advertised to be “authentic” displays of Native American traditions for non-Native spectators. After World War I and II, the pow wow became a way to honor American Indian veterans of war. Today, intertribal pow wows are an opportunity to reconnect with family, other tribes, and the earth and they are intended to reclaim the of pride and power, as well as a celebration of life. The Gathering of Nations in Albuquerque is the largest pow wow in North America, with over 700 tribes gathering to celebrate. Pow wows are open to outsiders—here is one first-timer’s experience as a spectator.

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The Stomp Dance

The stomp dance is a beloved tradition practiced primarily by Eastern Woodland and Southeastern tribes, including the Muscogee, Euchee, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Delaware, Miami, Ottawa, Peoria, Shawnee, Seminole, and Natchez tribes. They take place during the height of crop season and are often practiced on stomp grounds around a fire if weather permits. It’s called “stomp” dance because the pattern of movement is a stomp and shuffle in a circle. Like many Native American traditions, there is quite a bit of symbolism with the stomp dance. The fire in the center represents the light of the sun, which is considered life-giving and sacred. Dancers arrange themselves in a circle and move counter-clockwise, alternating men and women like links in a chain, with children trailing the end. The dance is almost like a moving prayer, bringing together generations and uniting the community. Find out how every state got its name; many are rooted in the Native American language.

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Annual American Indian Arts Celebration

Each year in November, the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum hosts the annual American Indian Arts Celebration to share the art, music and dance of the Seminole, Southeastern and other Indian tribes across the country. Visitors flock to hear storytelling, attend performances and see heart-pumping alligator wrestling, and also to shop for silverwork, beadwork, woodwork, basketry, leatherwork, photography, paintings and jewelry. There are also activities for children, including take-away crafts.

The Everglades within the Big Cypress Reservation make for a magnificent backdrop for the event, and visitors to the celebration should not miss the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum’s history and cultural exhibits nor the cypress swamp boardwalk. The nature trails take visitors through a beautiful 60-acre cypress dome to a living village. Brilliant blue skies meet miles of sawgrass and hammocks, providing the ultimate setting for this amazing celebration of arts, dance, culture and music.

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Red Earth Festival

The Red Earth American Indian Cultural Festival began in 1987 to showcase Native American dance and art. Since that time, Oklahoma City has transformed each June into the center of Native American culture in America. The award-winning festival features American Indian artists and dancers from throughout the country who celebrate the richness and diversity of their heritage with the world.

Through the years, Red Earth has matured into one of the most respected visual and performing arts events of its type – setting the standard for many of today’s Indian art shows held throughout the nation. At Red Earth, guests can sample the work of some of the nation’s most celebrated artists, with opportunities to purchase contemporary and traditional examples of beadwork, basketry, jewelry, pottery, sculpture, paintings, graphics and cultural attire during the juried art show and market.

A grand parade unlike any other parade in the world opens the Red Earth Festival in downtown Oklahoma City. The streets of downtown Oklahoma City will vibrate in Native American tribal spirit as tribal representatives in full regalia make the Red Earth Parade one of America’s most unique processions. The Red Earth Fancy Dance Competition will feature the elite of Native American dance in Men’s Fancy War Dance and Ladies’ Fancy Shawl. The masters each exhibit their originality and skills in one of the most prestigious of all native dance competitions. These events, and much more, at the largest and most treasured Native American visual and performing arts event in the world!

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