News and Public Media for North Central Florida
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Gainesville Celebrates Indigenous Culture With Native American Festival This Weekend

Pablo DeLuna has Apache and Tuscarora heritage and has been event planning and promoting for over 30 years.

His most recent festivals took place in Brooksville, and DeLuna, 50, said there has not been a major Native American event in North Central Florida for the past few years.

He's about to help change that.

The Gainesville Native American Festival will be held at the Alachua County Fairgrounds. It will kick off with a school day on Friday and last until Sunday. The festival will celebrate native culture through music, dance, art and food. Many different tribes and cultures will be represented — from Aztec to Seminole. DeLuna wants this to be an annual event and profits from ticket sales will be used to prepare for next year.

DeLuna says his focus will be on creating opportunities for native musicians and artists as well as educating the public.

“A lot of them (schools) do lesson plans on Native Americans. This gives them the chance to come out and see it real time,” DeLuna said.

He stresses the festival is not a powwow. A powwow is more spiritual and formal.

“Powwows are mainly by natives for natives,” DeLuna said.

In his Native American festivals in Brooksville, there were between seven and eight thousand guests. DeLuna and his associates are hoping for at least 5,000 guests in Gainesville and to one day rival the Hoggetowne Medieval Faire. At certain times this weekend, the public will have the opportunity to join in traditional dance performances.

A popular group of performers is the Nahui Ollin Aztec Fire Dancers from Mexico.

There will be mixes of contemporary and traditional music. A few notable artists will be present: Shelley Morningsong (one of the most recognizable native voices) and Fabian Fontenelle. Lowery Begay and the Nation of Change Dancers will be the host drum. The feature demonstrator is Jim Sawgrass, a native Floridian and member of the Muscogee Creek.

Sawgrass is giving a presentation on Creek and Seminole history. An eastern style hunting lodge, teepee, and ancient weaponry will be among the demonstrations and educational opportunities.

The issues Native Americans face today

Dr. Robin Wright, 68, of the University of Florida has been studying indigenous people of the Americas for about 40 years with a focus on the native people in Brazil. He plans to attend the festival.

According to Wright, there are about 2.5 million Native Americans in the U.S. with the largest population in the Southwest.

Many reservations and other native communities are surrounded by food deserts. They have problems with unemployment, alcoholism, diabetes and obesity.

According to Wright, the primary issue is sovereignty. It has been the biggest point of contention between natives and the U.S. for generations.

Finding common ground

Gainesville has a place where people of native and non-native blood can gather.

Elaine Mt. Pleasant, 77, found the Native American Spirituality class in the Gainesville Sun. The class is held at the Seraphim Center on Northwest 6th Street.

“I’ve always wanted to be more in tune with my spirituality … I really wanna meet people who are also native ...  because there aren't very many,” Mt. Pleasant said.

Mt. Pleasant has Mohawk and Tuscarora ancestry and moved from a reservation when she was four. She lived in an Irish neighborhood in Syracuse before moving again during high school.

“It was difficult because of the prejudices against us. Our neighbors wouldn't let their kids play with us ... I couldn't go out in the hot sun in the summer because I got too dark. And I had to be careful wearing my hair in pigtails,” Mt. Pleasant said.

Things started to get better during her junior year of high school when educating her peers on her heritage made her proud.

A continuing education

She’s looking forward to the Native American festival for the different cultures and homes. She would like the chance to have someone teach her their craft.

Mt. Pleasant did not have the luxury of learning about native culture. Her parents would speak native language to each other, but not to her.

She thinks education is a great theme for the festival as well. She wants to dispel stereotypes just like Wright. She said festivals and powwows are the best ways to increase communication between natives and non-natives.

Wright said the two main issues that native people face in Florida are cultural appropriation and ecological issues.

“Capitalism is draining all of the resources and leaving a wasteland in its wake,” Wright said.

The Big Cypress Indian Reservation and the Brighton Seminole Indian Reservation have been affected by environmental damage, according to Wright.

The solidarity people have with the environmental movement in Florida is one way that non-native peoples can ally themselves with natives in their conservation efforts.

“The issue that I see now that kind of bugs me... everyone wants to be an Indian,” Mt. Pleasant said.

Rev. Randy Snow, 53, is the facilitator of the Native American Spirituality Class at the Seraphim Center. Mt. Pleasant had not known any other natives in Gainesville before meeting Snow and others at the center.

Snow also sees cultural appropriation as a local problem. He says it is because people are not educated on appropriation. People may see it as flattery or dressing up as a role model. He said people forget that they are not costumes, but referred to as outfits or regalia.

Snow’s regalia is part of his growing process. There is a small strip of leather in it from when he was a baby.

What to know if you go

Mt. Pleasant has been to powwows up north and one by Ocala in Silver Springs.

“I just want to go around and talk to people. They do a lot of beadwork, leather. I like to see what they do. Listen to their stories,” Mt. Pleasant said.

Snow has roots in the Cherokee Bird Clan from Georgia. He served in the U.S. Army during Operation Desert Storm among other conflicts. He met his wife when he came to Gainesville after returning from Georgia. He claims traditional medicine cured a rare bone cancer that baffled doctors at UF Health Shands and Malcolm Randall VA Medical Center.

He is also looking forward to seeing similarities between the tribes and urges others to do the same and not look for differences.

“They’re very similar. They're not 100 percent the same. Each has their own different ways of doing things. For example - the four colors of man: some might go to red, yellow and black, in my tribe we use blue,” Snow said.

He said it is important to get a particular tribe’s perspective on traditions, but not to force it onto the entire tribal system.

Snow has some tips on attending the festival: Pay attention to the MC, If you have questions, wait patiently. Native Americans usually don’t point. It's considered impolite to point. Follow the lead with their nod. If you would like to take a picture of someone in regalia the polite thing is to ask them first.

“There's a lot of misconceptions about Native Americans. People think they all live on reservations and get money from the government. It’s not true. Most of them have to work just as hard as anybody else. This is an opportunity for them to come and do that,” DeLuna said.

Snow does not know the entertainers and is eager to see how their music matches up with tradition.

“My little brother is a drummer he's got his own little album out. It’s traditional. He tells the stories. I'm a flute player. I have another friend that’s very commercial, but still traditional,” Snow said.

Snow said that a new flair on old songs might be good. It could bridge gaps of skin color and religion, but he warns everyone to not lose tradition entirely.

“One of my elders said it doesn't matter the color of your skin or what you believe in. When you pull back that skin - we’re all red underneath.”

Jake is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by emailing or calling 352-392-6397.