Pictured above, Niki and Everett Romine participate in the seventh annual pow wow at Noccalula Falls on Saturday, October 17.
By Katie Bohannon, News Editor
The Turtle Island Native American Association hosted its seventh annual pow wow at Noccalula Falls on Saturday, October 17 and Sunday, October 18, welcoming the public to participate in an engaging and memorable experience.
As an intertribal pow wow, numerous tribes were represented at Noccalula Falls during the weekend. Vendors aligned the grounds, featuring hand-crafted items like pottery and jewelry. Charlie and Jessie Mato-Toyela were among the vendors, representing Blue Bear Flutes, custom and authentic Native American flutes that produce a collection of peaceful melodies.
Visitors gathered around a main circle at the pow wow, where several women, men and children dressed in stunning regalia performed both traditional and contemporary dances. Drums, song and prayer joined the dancing to create an atmosphere of unification and an outlet through which endless narratives could flow. Among those recognized in the circle were Miss Indian Alabama 2020 Mallory Gibson, Head Man Johnny Rains and Head Lady Alyssa Quimby.
Danza Azteca Quetzalcoatl de Memphis, also known as the Aztec Dancers from Memphis, Tennessee, demonstrated a powerful story in the circle on Saturday afternoon, and MC Ken Dixon welcomed members of the audience to join different dances in the circle throughout the event.
The original 501 (c) 3 nonprofit organization of Turtle Island Native American Association originated in Millington, Tennessee nearly 10 years ago, with a mission to educate the public, especially the youth, about Native American history and culture. United Cherokee AniYunWiYa Nation Vice Chief Lowrey Hesse worked to bring the nonprofit to Alabama, sponsoring pow wows in various locations throughout the state and surrounding areas.
“There’s so many myths and misinformation out there in the world about the Native Americans,” said Hesse. “There’s a lot of people who have no earthy idea how we believe or what we do. The entire idea [of Turtle Island and the pow wows] is to try to teach kids the culture of the Native Americans. Basically, a pow wow is just a gathering of people who share the same beliefs and the same culture.”
Hesse noted that throughout the years, the public’s response to the pow wows has been overwhelming. While the pow wows offer fun, interactive and engaging activities for children and adults like archery, tomahawk throwing and flint napping (the art of taking stones and wielding weapons or tools), the events also emerge as an opportunity to debunk false stereotypes or incorrect information and teach citizens the truth behind the Native American way of life.
Hesse is a member of the United Cherokee AniYunWiYa Nation, which means “The Principal People,” and holds their headquarters in Guntersville. The tribe descended from a Native American story which says that at one time in the world, all animals (feathered and four-legged creatures) spoke. The AniYunWiYa referred to themselves as “The Principal People” or the “real” people to distinguish themselves from the animals.
Hesse reflected on the Native American influence in his personal life before he even fully understood its significance. Memories stood out in his mind as symbols of his heritage, clues leading him to discover his true self. As a child in Cub Scouts, Hesse carved a tomahawk onto his neckerchief slide. Later in life when Hesse worked shoeing wild mustangs, he would pull the horse over and bite the animal on its ear to maintain control. Though Hesse reacted in both stages of his life almost by pure instinct, he found no reason as to why he responded in these manners until he began investigating his lineage.
After researching his family on Ancestry.com, Hesse discovered his great-grandmother was full-blooded Cherokee. In fact, Hesse shared Cherokee relatives on both his maternal and paternal side, though neither his mother nor father ever discussed their Native American ancestry. At 60 years old, the puzzle pieces fell into place and the drive Hesse felt in his heart began making sense.
“There’s a lot of stuff that you honestly don’t know when you’re a child,” said Hesse. “Things just come to you and you have no idea. Nobody ever told me to carve a tomahawk or bite the ear on a horse. It’s in your blood. It’s in your heart. That’s what I tell everybody – I don’t care if you’ve got one drop of Cherokee blood, you’re Cherokee. It’s how you feel in your heart.”
Diane Knodel, Rhonda Eulenstein and Karen Cooper have attended pow wows since their childhoods. The trio watched the dancers Saturday, reflecting on the importance of social gatherings like the pow wow at Noccalula Falls for the Native American community. Cooper herself danced in the circle at several pow wows, serving as head lady at numerous events.
Cooper and Eulenstein echoed Hesse’s remark that outward appearance does not signify whether or not an individual is a Native American. Eulenstein noted that while people assume all Native Americans have straight, black hair with a dark complexion, Cooper herself is blonde haired and blue eyed. Yet their physical characteristics do not separate them from their heritage; rather, their heart draws them closer to their culture.
Eulenstein and Cooper described the pow wow as a cross between attending church and a family reunion, noting that sometimes a pow wow is the only event where they might see a beloved relative or friend for the entire year. As religious services and family gatherings unify people and bring loved ones together, the pow wow does the same – representing a welcoming environment where friends and family can assemble and celebrate their culture, beliefs and heritage.
“This is like going to church on Sundays,” said Cooper. “This is a revival. When you leave here, you feel good, especially if you’ve gotten to dance. If you get a chance to go in the circle, it’s going to feel like air conditioning inside. It’s hot out here, but it’s cool in there. You pick up the energy from your feet all the way to the top of your head. It’s like a euphoria.”
“There’s some of us sitting here, we’re all family but we haven’t seen each other in years,” said Eulenstein. “You have family of the blood and family of the heart. We’re not sisters [by blood], but we are sisters [by heart].”