STONE MOUNTAIN - American Indians came from as far away as Canada and New Mexico to celebrate their native heritage at Stone Mountain Park this weekend.
Officials estimate 4,500 people attended the festival Saturday to watch native dance competitions and peruse booths full of turquoise jewelry, paintings and music, pottery, moccasins, furs and bead work.
A series of festivals, or powwows, operate throughout the season across the United States and Canada. Many Indians follow the powwow circuit year after year as a way of life, building friendships and a sense of community as Indians meet up to dance, socialize and sell their wares across North America, said John Standing Deer, head dance competition judge.
Standing Deer, a full-time land surveyor in Cherokee, N.C., manages to attend several powwows with his friend and fellow surveyor, Robert Tramper and wife Carol, of Cherokee.
"Their boss is good about letting them have a Monday or Friday off to attend a weekend festival," said Carol Tramper, who sells hand-beaded items while her husband competes in dance competitions.
Indians are historically great travelers. Two or three centuries ago, about 500 Indian nations, each with its own distinctive language, roamed North America living off the land, until Europeans moved in and began resettling them, Standing Deer said. The most famous resettlement occurred in 1838, when about 17,000 Cherokee were forcibly marched from North Carolina to Oklahoma, during which about 4,000 Cherokee died of exposure and disease.
The discovery of gold in 1829 in Dahlonega on Cherokee lands encouraged the removal of the Cherokee from Georgia, Standing Deer said, adding that Dahlonega is the English pronunciation of the Cherokee word "taulonica" that means "yellow metal."
Indian languages and customs were nearly decimated over the next 200 years, until the mid-20th century, when Indians took a renewed interest in their history. The string of powwows grew out of that resurgence and the desire to retain customs, artistry and languages that were nearly lost.
American Indians were granted full U.S. citizenship in 1924.
Chris Flying Eagle, 35, a waiter in Cherokee, N. C., began learning the native dances about seven years ago. After years of dancing in the Cherokee streets for tourists, Flying Eagle branched out into powwow competitions, where a first place winner can take home $500 or $600 in prize money, Standing Deer said.
"It (the ability to dance) is a gift from the creator," Flying Eagle said.
Across from the dance ring, Bill Running Fisher, a Blackfoot from Montana, sold walrus tooth carvings, bead work and two pairs of $450 hand-made moccasins Saturday. The trip halfway across the country was worth it, he said, adding the couple had grossed about $2,000 on Saturday alone.
Amidst the displays of silver jewelry, pelts, and paintings, the It Element booth stood out with artistry from the Indians of Peru and Guatemala. Della Garcia, who owns the Ansley Mall store, has imported the items for more than 30 years, giving native South American women an income source, she said.
Liz Vasconcelos of Athens loves the local Indian festivals.
"This is my third one," she said. "We love to come and watch the dances."
SideBar: If you go
' What: Eighth annual American Indian festival
' Where: Stone Mountain Park at the Antebellum Plantation
' When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. today
' Cost: $9 per person (plus an $8 parking pass per car to enter the park)