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Jefferson County Powwow ties together community and competition

It was a cold, spring day on March 23. Locals and travelers alike packed the Jefferson County High School to see the Spirit of Nations Powwow.

Participants signed up at a desk in front of the entrance for the hand drumming contest and dance competition. Dancers wore colorful regalia that is custom for their respective dances. Jonathan Jumper, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and a contestant in the Fancy Dance category, wore neon regalia decorated with long tassels and feathers. He held his 15-month-old, cooing child in his arms, who was wearing matching regalia.

 “This will be his first time coming out,” he said. “I've been dancing all my life ever since I could walk ever since I was about his age… It's been a family type deal.”

 A master of ceremonies announced each competitor as they paraded in an arena inside the school’s gymnasium. Older dancers held up the state, American and Eastern Band of Cherokee Indian flags. This tradition, known as the Grand Entry, is followed by the American Indian flag songs.

Drumming circles took turns leading the dances throughout the day. Will Tushka is the head singer of the Thunderbear drumming circle. He has been a part of drumming circles for nearly 40 years. He had a bag of cough drops next to the drum to prepare for nearly 8 hours of singing.

 “It brings all these cultures together, all these people together,” Tushka said during a break between dances.

 Winners of each category receive a cash prize. But the Powwow’s focus is on education and community.

Powwows originated in the Great Plains from nomadic tribes in the 19th century. The social gatherings historically took place in the summertime, when bands of tribes would reunite after splitting up in the winter.

Sherri and Mark Finchum have organized the Spirit of Nations powwow for over 30 years through their non-profit, Indian Creek Productions, Inc. At one of the first Powwows they organized, they tied the knot.

“We had a traditional Cherokee wedding ceremony... and we tied the blanket,” she said. "They’re still tied!"

“If I ever come home, and see that knot is untied I know I’ve done something, look out!” he joked.

The Finchums are retired educators with Cherokee roots. They use this Powwow to preserve Native American culture for future generations.

 “You want to pass that down to the younger generation, you want them to understand, why do we do this? Why do we come together and celebrate with dance?” Sherri Finchum said. “Being educators, we want to make sure that they know the culture correctly.”

 Judges scored competing dancers based on their regalia, dance and their ability to keep rhythm with the drum. Nikki Crisp, a dancer competing in women’s buckskin, helped judge men’s traditional and grass dances.

 “I’ve been part of this Powwow for about 7 years … I’ve won several [competitions],” Crisp said. “From one Powwow to the next, you never know who's going to show up, or how many are going to show up.”

The embroidered geometric designs along her blue, tasseled regalia is a nod to her Lakota Sioux heritage.

The designs and shapes are also part of tradition, according to Allen Fugate, whose Cherokee name is Ally Agwa, which means Fern Elk. His hat reads “My Heroes Have Always Killed Cowboys”, a parody of the famous Willie Nelson song.

Fugate is a silversmith and said that there were 30 silversmiths in Cherokee Nation East in the 1700s, including Sequoyah.

“The Cherokees were particularly fond of triangles,” he said. "It is such an integral part of clothing worn during those times.”

Also among the vendors is Regina Swimmer, a ribbon skirt maker. Colorful ribbon skirts for young girls are displayed at her stand. Swimmer said ribbon making, which was introduced to Native Americans in the 1800s through European traders, has seen a resurgence in popularity. To her, Native American crafts like ribbon making represent individuality and resilience.

 And just the fact that you know that we are still here and it's a good opportunity for us to display that,” she said.

 Her husband, Eddie Swimmer, is a world champion hoop dancer. Between breaks in the competition, he demonstrates the dance using over 30 hoops to make various designs, including Mickey Mouse for younger viewers.

“Traditional dances are really taught by kids just watching,” he said.

Kids and adults alike in the audience bob their heads to the beat and admire the dancers’ intricate regalia. Audience members also enjoyed performances from the Apache Crown Dancers and demonstrations from flutists and artists.

One observer, Susie Fowler, hugged Mark Finchum in appreciation.

“I was here last year and it was good, but this year is absolutely to die for,” she said. “It is wonderful.”

(This story was co-produced with students from the University of Tennessee's Department of Journalism and Media.)

Jacqui was born and raised in Pittsburgh. She graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 2021 with a bachelor’s in communications. Outside of work, she likes to go to baseball games, walk dogs at her local animal shelter, and hike.