Music is Medicine.

Native American Cultural Events
by: Kathy Witt, Kentucky Living Magazine

"Kentucky has a rich Native American presence," says Sarah Elizabeth Burkey, a Native musician who lives in Kevil. "And it is not just in the history of the land and what happened here hundreds of years ago. It is alive and well in the everyday lives of people of the Commonwealth."

Kentucky observes Native American Heritage Month in November--but several events, including powwows, will have unfolded beforehand in celebration of the contributions Native Americans have made to the state's cultural heritage.

The events, which combine education and hands-on activities like tomahawk throwing, bow-and-arrow and blow-gun shooting, and Indian dancing and drumming, help raise awareness and play an important role in preserving Kentucky's Native American traditions.

"Some estimates put the percentage of people in Appalachia with Native blood as high as 92 percent," says Kenneth Phillips, a Cherokee from Corbin. "The Cherokee Trail of Tears went through the southern half of Kentucky, during which many of our ancestors slipped away and lived as white people while hiding their ancestry due to fear of being removed to the reservation."

Phillips adds, "Much of what we call folk art, folk music, and folkways today is actually Native American originally and has been handed down by these Native ancestors who have been forgotten."

"We want to educate the public, especially the children, about true Native American culture and keep it alive--not the Hollywood stereotype," says Jan Quigg, whose ancestors were Cherokee. Jan and her husband, Dan, organize the powwow in Richmond that takes place at Battlefield Park.

Glenda McGill agrees that the events cater to kids. McGill, whose ancestry includes Cherokee, Shawnee, Delaware, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Scotch-Irish, and French, helps organize the All Nations at Westport event each year. Two kid favorites are the candy dance and the potato dance. The former is like the cakewalk at so many fairs and festivals, but with a candy grab when the drumming stops. The latter is reminiscent of an old childhood game, pass the potato--only with two kids holding the potato between their noses as they dance in a circle.

A highlight of the Native American Heritage Museum Benefit Powwow, held in early September in Corbin, is an appearance by Emerson Begay, a well-known traditional Navajo dancer and artist, who will be Head Man Dancer. Another is the mobile museum that travels the state with its collection of war clubs, smoking pipes, arrows, jewelry, and fire-starter kit, among other artifacts.

The museum's mission is to teach about the Eastern Woodland tribes--Cherokee, Shawnee, Mohawk, and Creek are the major tribes represented--that inhabited this region when Europeans arrived.

Authentic crafts and foods are staples of powwow events and might include vendors from Cherokee, Navajo, Apache, Lumbee, Shawnee, and Mohawk nations. Typically there are demonstrations of medicinal herbs, drumming, bead jewelry, and leather crafts like bags and moccasins. These items and others--pottery, sculpture, dream catchers, clothing, and recordings of Native American music--are sold.

At some powwows, kids queue up for grab bags made especially for them. Festival food generally includes fry bread, buffalo burgers, and Native tacos, though items like hamburgers and hot dogs are available as well.

Singing and storytelling are major components of these events. Burkey, who is known by the English translation of her Cherokee name, SoftWalks--which means "she who walks softly with respect and love for all of nature"--will spend each weekend in November singing and telling stories at Native American events all over the state.

Burkey has recorded several albums, including Don't Die Yet, on which she is accompanied by Grammy-nominated Navajo musician Tony Redhouse. By fall, Burkey will release her newest album, which features her singing many of the songs in Cherokee.

Burkey will also appear in November 2010 at Sacred Soil: Foundation of Life, the 15th Annual Louisville Festival of Faiths. While not a "Native" event, the festival celebrates the different cultures, faiths, and spiritualities of the world, and explores how to unite them for the cause of environmental sustainability. She is also a frequent guest artist at programs held at Mantle Rock Native Education and Culture Center in Marion.

"I sing traditional songs in Cherokee as well as songs I have written in English," Burkey says. "And like many Kentuckians, I also have Scotch-Irish heritage. Think about all the generations and generations of people from different cultures over the ages that had to unite for us to be here today....That is a lot of heritage."


Native American events are plentiful. There are many events in Kentucky each year that celebrate Native American culture. A good source of information is the Kentucky Native American Heritage Commission.

published August 2010 copyright Kentucky Living Magazine.