East Ala fair displays American Indian traditions

By Laura Johnson
Ohatchee, Alaska (AP) October 2010

Juanita Gardinski can still remember speaking her family’s native Choctaw language growing up on a sharecropping farm in western Tennessee.

Using the same hands that harvested crops about half a century ago, she formed dough into small buns, dipped them in flour and rolled them flat to fry beneath a tent at Janney Furnace Park. Gardinski, with the help of her husband, Joe, was using the fried flatbread, a traditional American Indian food, to make what she called “Indian tacos” for visitors at the park’s first American Indian festival, a three-day event last week.

She used a flour-based dough and vegetable oil to make the bread, but she said her ancestors would have likely used a hand-ground cornmeal base and animal lard. Gardinski said she doesn’t mind using modern methods to make a fresh interpretation of the traditional food because it helps make her culture part of the 21st century.

“It’s good to kind of share your culture with other people,” she said. “If you don’t, you lose it.”

The festival included about 30 American Indian craftsmen, demonstrators and vendors, many of whom, like Gardinski, have an interest in sharing their culture. They also have an interest in sharing history about how American Indians, especially those from the southeastern United States, lived.

“Most people think all the Indians wore headdresses and lived in tepees, but they didn’t,” said Tim Moon, director of the Janney Furnace Civil War and Indian Artifact Museum.

Inside the museum are arrowheads, chips of pottery and trading pipes that have been churned up to the surface of the northeast Alabama soil. Many of the artifacts on display have been donated by local collectors like David Brown, who developed an interest in local Indian artifacts when he began gathering arrowheads as a child.

“I like for people to see what people of old had to work with and how ingenious they were, and what great craftsmen they were,” Brown said.

Learning the cultural distinctions among American Indian tribes who lived in the southeastern United States is part of what the event is about. To help with those efforts, Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw and Seminole Indians all took part in the event.

They were making pottery, weaving baskets, crafting beadwork, telling stories and selling clothing. The event included bow-and-arrow, blowgun and spear-throwing demonstrations.

One of the craftsmen is Dan Townsend, who grew up in the Florida Everglades as a member of the Muscogee nation of Florida. He began practicing the American Indian tradition of carving symbols into stone as a child and today travels across the United States demonstrating his art.

Like Gardinski, Townsend has found modern methods to reproduce old traditions. Using an electrically powered tool fixed with sharp dental attachments, he carves symbols into pieces of a marine gastropod’s shell.

Buck Humphries first developed his decades-old interest in collecting when his mom gave him two arrowheads as a child. He said that seeing the items crafted as they would have been when Europeans arrived amazed him.

“By having this live demonstration, we know exactly how it was done,” said Humphries, just after watching a demonstrator craft an arrowhead from a small stone.