Growing up in Stroud, R.G. Harris’ forefathers weren’t his only inspiration as he trained as a fancy dancer.
The King of Pop also provided motivation for the Kiowa youngster.
“I used to practice in the garage ... and there were no doors. I (had) seen Michael Jackson one day dancing in a video. I thought, ‘I could do that,’ so that’s what I would do: I would put a Michael Jackson tape on, and I would practice fancy dancing to that music. ’Cause it had the beat, you know. So these people would drive by at nighttime, and they’d see me jumping around, and they thought I was crazy,” said Harris, master of ceremonies for the Red Earth Festival dance competition.
“Sometimes it’s good to be different.”
Harris, a retired fancy dancer and Anadarko resident, encouraged hundreds of festivalgoers to embrace change as they gathered Friday for the first grand entry of dancers at the 28th Annual Red Earth Native American Cultural Festival.
There was plenty of change to the venerable festival — including a shift in venue to Remington Park and an overhaul of the dancing competition to showcase two popular categories — as well as to the late-spring weather, which started out stormy and eventually morphed to sunny and steamy.
While the festival moved this year out of its longtime home at the Cox Convention Center, it was scheduled to keep one downtown tradition: the Red Earth Parade. But heavy rains, flooded streets and lightning prompted organizers to cancel the Friday morning procession.
“In 28 years, it’s the first time we’ve ever actually had to cancel the parade,” said Red Earth Deputy Director Eric Oesch, standing in the juried art market inside Remington Park. “(We’re) disappointed, but it is what it is. And this place is full, and we just opened.”
Echota Cherokee artist Anita Caldwell Jackson already was reaping the rewards of her own openness to change: a first-place ribbon in the diversified arts category for “The Birth of Corn,” the form of a pregnant woman sculpted out of leather and adorned with a painting of a maiden harvesting ready ears from green stalks.
“I started doing leatherwork in July. I haven’t been doing it a year yet, so everything I’ve done so far, it’s been trial and error and figuring it out. I’ve always wanted to do sculpture ... but I didn’t have the right medium until I found leather,” said the longtime painter and retired art teacher, as festivalgoers gathered around her first-floor booth to admire her mixed-media paintings and unusual cowhide sculptures.
“The reward is to come to the show and meet the people and talk to the people. If they don’t like your stuff, they usually don’t tell you. But if they like it, they’ll tell you.”
The McAlester resident, who has been exhibiting at Red Earth since the late 1990s, said she was already seeing good crowds at the new venue.
“I’m having a great show,” Jackson said. “It’s easier to get to, and with the Thunder downtown and all the congestion, they didn’t know if they were going to be in the playoffs. If they had been in the playoffs, we would’ve been paying $20 for parking — if you got parking.”
Even on the third-floor clubhouse level, Yukon painter Brenda Kennedy Grummer was seeing growing crowds perusing the art booths. The Citizen Potawatomi artist has participated in Red Earth off and on since the late 1980s and was pleased with the new venue.
“I think we’ll get the kinks out of everything this year, and we love it out here at Remington Park. The Chickasaws have been overly generous to us,” she said, referring to Global Gaming Solutions, the Chickasaw Nation subsidiary that owns the racetrack.
“I’m a fan of Red Earth and I like to participate in a festival that we have right here in Oklahoma City.”
The storm clouds rolled out Friday morning, and by the time the first grand entry started just after noon, the sun was shining off the intricate beadwork, colorful fabrics and fluttering feathers on the dancers’ regalia. Instead of filing into the Cox Convention Center Arena, the dancers, tribal princesses and dignitaries marched from the Remington Park track, along the tunnel generally used by thoroughbreds and quarter horses and into the saddling paddock, where a stage had been erected for the dance competition.
While the children’s categories still were open to different styles of American Indian dance, Red Earth this year narrowed its teen and adult dance divisions to just two categories: the men’s fancy dance and women’s fancy-shawl dance. The festival will crown its first Red Earth National Champion in the two categories Saturday, the final day of this year’s event.
“We’ve doubled our prize money for those categories ... and those are two of the most athletic and colorful dances,” Oesch said, noting that festivalgoers also could watch exhibitions of hoop dancing and Choctaw traditional dances Friday. “There were some people that weren’t happy, but what worked for us in the ’90s doesn’t necessarily work in the 2000s.”
For the “shawling sisters” — Amber Cleveland of Wisconsin Dells, Wisc.; Taylor Spoonhunter, who lives in Kansas City, Kan., but hails from South Dakota; and Kirsten Goodwill, who just moved to Lawrence, Kan., from Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada — the boost in prize money and focus on their fancy shawl dance style brought them back to Red Earth for the first time since they were children.
“We just decided to come check it out,” Spoonhunter said.
“It’s a lot different,” Cleveland added. “But I like the changes so far.”
If you go
The 28th Annual Red Earth Native American Cultural Festival features
dance competition, art market, food booths, children’s activities, live music.
•When: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday.
•Where: Remington Park race track and casino, 1 Remington Place.