Staff Photo: Meghan Kotowski Nick Highbear of Adairsville and Richard Braveheart of Carrollton demonstrate traditional footwork during the open dance session at the American Indian Festival.
LAWRENCEVILLE -- Jessica Howell, a Muscogee Creek-Cherokee Indian, has been attending the American Indian Festival since its first year in 1992. She returns every year to celebrate her heritage as well as the festival's founder, who passed away in 2006.
"(Founder) Paul Eddy was an amazing man and he treated me like I was a family member," the Lawrenceville resident said while wearing traditional Native American garb. "I would've come (to the event) even if I didn't live 10 minutes down the street."
Eddy's widow Toadie and son Ryan believe the same thing. They loved Paul and continue to produce the festival year after year to honor him.
"We want to carry it on in Paul's memory as long as we can. We've been doing all this length of time, so it seems like something we need to keep up," Toadie Eddy said. "When Paul started this, he just said that the Native Americans were the most misunderstood, culturally. He wanted to really educate the people."
So he began the American Indian Festival which is rich with Native American history, art and storytelling.
Twenty years later, tribes from around the country and some from Canada travel to Lawrenceville for the three-day event over Memorial Day weekend as a celebration.
The people come together to pay homage to their heritage through drum and dance competitions. Howell has been dancing since she was 5 years old and participates in the competition vying for first, second or third prize. Winners take home cash for being the best dancer in their age group, sex and type of dance.
"You learn from the elders and what they say to you, you watch people and you always do your own thing, but take bits and pieces from everyone and make it your own," she said.
Besides the competitions, the other extravagant event of the day is the grand entry during the festival -- 2 p.m. today and 1 p.m. Monday. The grand entry includes dancers and color guards entering an area to create a large dance circle adorned in feathers, bright colors, beads, leather and other Native American attire. Different tribes dance specific ways during the ceremony. For those who can't decipher between the many moves, all of the dances are explained during the session.
For live music, the Locklear Sisters from Clark Lake, Mich. perform during the day. Sisters Summer and Amber Locklear are Lumbee Indians who sing country and pop music. The festival is their first stop on their spring tour through the Southeast and Midwest.
The festival is located at the Gwinnett County Fairgrounds in the covered arena and ends at 5 p.m. Monday.