TUSCUMBIA, Ala. (AP) — The sound of rhythmic drumming and tribal chants pervaded Spring Park on Saturday (Sept. 14) morning during the public day of the 19th annual Oka Kapassa Festival.
The sun shone down on festival goers as they gathered around the arena to watch the Chickasaw Nation dance troupe perform a variety of native dances to songs from the Southern Pine Singers.
The announcer said the festival is like a homecoming to them.
"I appreciate everyone who travels to be a part of this festival — everyone who remembers the kindness of the city a long time ago, and everyone who comes to say, 'I want to be a part of this and be a part of what happened a long time ago,'" Tuscumbia Mayor Kerry Underwood said during a welcoming ceremony.
In addition to the Chickasaw, the festival had representation from Choctaw, Cherokee, Creek, Seminole, Navajo and Lakota tribal nations and more.
At the information booth, a candle burned in honor of Johnnie Ruth Maney, a Cherokee woman and "dear friend of Oka Kapassa" who died last year.
"She was here for several years sharing her crafts and culture, so we just wanted to take a moment to remember her," said festival Chairman Terry McGee.
Officials honored her life during the welcoming ceremony and presented a gift basket to her family on behalf of the city.
The family, in turn, called the gesture "an honor" and offered a piece of handmade pottery to the festival committee.
It was just one reflection of connecting, which Underwood designated as the word of the day.
"A long time ago, Tuscumbia connected with Native Americans during the time of the Trail of Tears," he said. "There was a connection there where we said, 'It's not fair what's happening to you. We want to make things better.'
"That connection has lasted all these years, and I'm appreciative of the fact that every year, we come back and say we will remember Cold Water. We will remember the kindness of the people in Tuscumbia, and we continue that connection we have with Native Americans."
It was also a day of connection between Native Americans and non-Native attendees.
Some attended the festival for the entertainment, some to learn the history behind Tuscumbia's role in the Removal, and others to interact with tribes with which they share some ancestry.
This was the case for Shoals resident Rene' Anderson, who accepted an open invitation to the crowd to join in a traditional dance with the Chickasaw troupe.
"We have Cherokee in our family, so I try to come," she said. "I'm just trying to learn as much as I can. What better place?"
Both she and Marilyn Manset, another attendee who joined in the dance, said they loved the experience.
Manset, who came with her granddaughter, said the festival is a great chance to experience living history for all ages.
"I'm really glad they do this," she said.
At noon, Micah Swimmer entered the arena to perform traditional dances with his Cherokee Wolfland Dance Troupe. Swimmer has traveled to the festival at least four times from Cherokee, North Carolina.
When he wasn't dancing, he facilitated a booth that sold arrowhead necklaces and wooden coins and displayed tribal garb — such as a bear pelt. He also wrote visitors' names in Eastern Band Cherokee on a paper feather.
He said Oka Kapassa provides a great opportunity to educate young people about southeastern native American tribes.
"Everybody's nice down here," he said. "What I really like is that a lot of people from down here are trying to get the correct history out into the communities and the area so people know exactly the events that happened and took place here. I really like that people are interested in learning the authentic history and the culture and putting it out there for people to learn and understand."
McGee had shared a similar sentiment earlier.
"We cannot tell the story of Alabama without Alabama's first people," he said. "(Tuscumbia) is documented as one of the only places that during the Removal, the townspeople came down and fed and clothed and gave blankets to these people while they were waiting for the barges at Tuscumbia Landing. It's unique.
"We were on the right side of history. It was something we should be very proud of."
Information from: TimesDaily, http://www.timesdaily.com/