Long before Wichita became a trading post on the Chisholm Trail, it was the domain of the Plains Indians.
Today, the city honors that heritage most visibly with the Keeper of the Plains, the iconic sculpture by Blackbear Bosin prominently elevated downtown where the Arkansas and Little Arkansas rivers come together.
But perhaps the best way to experience — to live and breathe — that rich Native American tradition is through American Indian Festival. The festival is the largest single event presented by the Mid-America All-Indian Center, drawing about 4,300 people a year.
The fourth-annual event takes place July 12 and 13 in Century II’s Expo Hall. There’s something for all ages and interests: a powwow, fine art market, crafts, food and education. Organizers say it is an inexpensive and informative family event that is a respite from the heat of summer.
Lynn Stumblingbear, who is of Chickasaw heritage, serves as chairperson of the festival as well as on the Indian center’s board of directors. Her husband is full-blooded Kiowa.
“We’ve lived our lives in the culture,” says Stumblingbear, who is an accomplished seamstress of traditional Chickasaw dresses.
Stumblingbear encourages Wichitans to sample the cuisine, in particular the Indian taco — made of traditional Indian fry bread with meats and cheeses. She also says the fine art market is superb.
“The art shows the tradition and speaks to the heritage,” she says. “Take home a piece of something that’s authentic.”
Angela Cato, the City of Wichita’s marketing director, says other highlights include visitors from the Eagle Valley Raptor Center, a chance to meet Kneehigh the miniature horse and a demonstration on how Indians painted their ponies with horses from Old Cowtown Museum.
“It’s really meant to immerse people of all backgrounds and understand our shared history,” she said.
And of course, the sights and sounds of the contest powwow are sure to captivate attendees. Dancers representing tribes from across the country will compete, the steady drum beat propelling them around the arena. In the grand entry, dancers parade into the arena with their flags and form a circle. During the invocation, they call on the Creator, or Great Spirit, to bless those who have gathered.
Stumblingbear said the emcee will make it clear when it is time for the public to observe and when the public is welcome to dance.
So this July, step into the arena of Kansas’ heritage, observe the rich regalia and let the music move you.
The 411 on powwow
The Mid-America All-Indian Center provides powwow basics:
Q: What is a powwow?
A: Powwows are American Indian celebrations of community and spirituality, featuring American Indian drum and dance. Powwows preserve the American Indian heritage by handing down traditions to the younger generation. The songs, dances and regalia (clothing) all have meaning.
Q: What is the origin of the powwow?
A: Its exact origin is difficult to pinpoint. However, as American Indians were moved onto reservations, their dancing was curtailed by government regulations. Dancing became a powerful symbol of Indian identity. Since the turn of the 20th century, the intertribal powwow has rapidly developed into a form of expression, recognizable to American Indians throughout the continent.
Q: What is the significance of powwow songs?
A: Songs that are sung during powwows have many themes, from religious to war to social.
American Indian Festival
Century II Expo hall
$5 one-day | $8 two-days
$4 age 55+ & active military
$3 age 6-16 | Free for under 6
Sat: 10 a.m.–10 p.m.
(Powwow Grand Entry at 1 & 7pm)
Sun: 10 a.m.–6 p.m.
(Powwow Grand Entry at 1pm)