Art, wisdom, history

The word means “central place” or “gathering place.” In fact, legend holds that Kituwah was the ancient Cherokees’ first permanent settlement. It’s pronounced Gih-DOO-wuh — and that’s just the first of many lessons visitors can learn during this year’s intertribal celebration.

Kituwah ’98 boasts a strong educational focus, says Gail Gomez, director of the High Country Art & Craft Guild, which sponsors the event. Even before the festival begins, a traveling version of the show will visit local schools — bringing traditional dance, music, storytelling and historical presentations to students unable to attend the event.

And the Pack Place Gallery will honor the Kituwah spirit all month long, exhibiting the work of a wide variety of renowned American Indian artists — including eighth-generation potter Joel Queen of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians; Karen Reavis, an Osage who creates three-dimensional tribal arts; and internationally famed artist Donald Vann, whose painting “When Spirits Weep” has been named the official artwork for the celebration.

Launched in 1991, Kituwah has endured its share of struggles. When the Guild’s headquarters burned in 1995’s French Broad riverfront fire, the event was temporarily shelved. But despite such major setbacks, the show has not only survived, it has flourished, notes Gomez.

“For the first show, we sent out notices to tribal headquarters all over the country, and we have never had less than 50 nations represented,” she proclaims proudly. Today, Kituwah is among the largest intertribal gatherings in the eastern United States.

The dancing and storytelling are always popular, but for Gomez, the visual art is the highlight of this year’s celebration. Still, what goes home with most visitors happens not in the gallery or on the main stage, but in the Civic Center’s Mezzanine Room, where elders from tribes across the country bestow their wisdom on uniformly entranced audiences.

“We always leave them hungry with the Wisdomkeepers,” confesses Gomez.

Fred Bushyhead, traditional chief of the Southern Cheyenne nation, puts it this way: “When elders go, you lose the culture; “Kituwah is a good chance to educate people, change their attitudes.”

The Wisdomkeepers program has done as much to educate American Indian youth about their culture as it has whites, he insists — a trend Bushyhead hopes to see continue. And as Kituwah’s dance leader, he’s been delighted to witness an unintended side effect of the intertribal event.

“We’ve had dancers peeking out from behind the curtain to watch dances from other tribes that they’re not familiar with,” he relates, adding, “They’re learning, too. They haven’t seen these certain styles of dancing, and it’s an education for them.”

Bushyhead talks about the notorious boarding schools set up in the early part of this century (the last of them was only recently abolished), where American Indian youth were forced to assimilate into white culture. The cancerous ignorance of these schools regarding the physical, emotional and social well-being of Indian children still taints American society, he maintains.

“[Non-Indians] see [the different tribes] as the same,” he explains. “They don’t realize how many nations there are. … [There are] 300 different dialects.”

Bushyhead has been a dancer for more than 55 years. As a leader of pow-wows (dance competitions judged by such factors as completeness of regalia and adherence to traditional steps), he’s seen thousands delight in the colorful intensity of Native American dance. But even awe, he reminds us, can be blind: “I realized that no one [in the audiences] knew what the dances were about. I felt it was my responsibility to tell them that they’re not all the same.”

To that end, the chief began explaining the tradition behind each dance before it was presented, which he says increases both audience enjoyment and understanding. And Kituwah features non-competitive dancing, enhancing participants’ pleasure, as well.

“When there’s no stress [to win], the dancers really let themselves go,” Bushyhead observes. “They dance however the songs and drums make them feel. They dance their best.

The meanings behind these dances are not the only thing often lost on non-native audiences.

Mount Rushmore, says David Narcomey, director of the nonprofit Indian Community Association of Jacksonville, Fla., was “a slap in the face” to the Lakota Indians, who held the mountain sacred. What’s more, he asserts, the creator of that was also the founder of the modern Ku Klux Klan. Narcomey drops these bombs casually: As overseer of the 60-foot-long educational monolith called the Wall of Tears (created by Indigenous People of the Turtle Continent, a Native American educational group), he’s well-versed in the atrocities committed against native people by the U.S. government.and others.

The Wall — which will be on display at the Civic Center during Kituwah — is a timeline of American Indian history and culture, from the time of Columbus to the present day. It is constantly updated and heavily researched to ensure accuracy. This socially significant Kituwah attraction includes photocopies of old documents, articles and treaties concerning many aspects of Indian culture, such as a decree by the king of England ordering the scalping of American Indians.

“Now you [know] where it started,” says Narcomey, an Oklahoma Seminole.

The traveling piece has shocked and saddened people wherever it goes. In fact, he says, a Jewish organization in St. Petersburg has so identified with the project that a similar wall, pertaining to the Holocaust, may be soon in the works. Above all, the Wall of Tears is designed to educate.

As Narcomey points out, even teachers are students, when it comes to certain subjects.

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