Coronavirus in Oklahoma: Red Earth Festival continues celebrating Native American culture despite pandemic
A version of this story appears in Friday's Weekend Life section of The Oklahoman.
Red Earth moves: Long-running Native American festival continues in new venue despite pandemic
Ardmore bladesmith Daniel Worcester is looking forward not only to showing his new knifework but also to "actually seeing some people" at this year's Red Earth Festival.
"I've stayed busy and kept working ... but every one of our shows have been canceled," said the Chickasaw artist. "It will be my 27th consecutive year (at Red Earth). We almost missed this one. We missed it back in June, but I was glad that they could postpone it and actually have an event there at Shawnee this year."
The 2013 Red Earth Honored One, Worcester will be among more than 70 Native American artists from around the state and country to gather Saturday and Sunday for the 34th Annual Red Earth Festival. Although the long-running event was delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic, many artists, dancers and patrons have been eagerly awaiting Red Earth, which is moving this year to a new venue: the Grand Event Center at the Grand Casino Hotel & Resort in Shawnee.
"We've been very fortunate in the past and in the present that we have artists come from all over the nation. We're being safe and trying to make sure all of them are health-conscious and careful while traveling. One artist, for example, said that she would come two weeks early if she needed to quarantine just to be able could come to the festival. ... That's how excited that a lot of these artists are to have a venue to sell their art," said Paula Cagigal, president of the Red Earth Inc. board of directors.
"Some of these artists normally travel for weeks on end selling their art throughout the summer and fall, and unfortunately ... for a lot of them, this is their only (event) for the year."
Like so many other large events, several Native American art markets and festivals across the country have been scrapped this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
"Even the Indian Market out in Santa Fe (New Mexico) was canceled ... but we did a virtual market this year through Indian Market and that went real well," Worcester said. "But I miss the face-to-face, getting to talk to each of my collectors and new collectors and interact. There's nothing like face-to-face interaction with each individual."
The event cancellations have left Native artists struggling with the loss of income and kept the phones ringing at Red Earth's offices.
"One of our major missions is to provide an environment for these artists to have a place to sell (their work), and this year especially since so many of the shows have been canceled, this is one of the few if not only venues that they can look at to sell," said Cagigal, who is Cherokee.
"Unfortunately, looking into the fall, it doesn't look like there's going to be very many options, either. The artists, some of them have called two or three times just to check to make sure that we still are planning to have an event, because it's one of those things that unfortunately everybody is in a new economic situation. And nobody knows what's coming next, especially for these artists."
Although the Red Earth Festival shifted from early June to Labor Day weekend, Cagigal said the board, staff and volunteers were determined to move forward with the long-running intertribal celebration of Native visual art, dance and culture.
"I think that in Oklahoma we take for granted how much art and culture that we have from the Native American tribes and the people that live here. ... Even with it being the 34th year, we would have canceled in a second if we thought we couldn't do it safely and in the best way possible. We still want it to be a high-class event," she said.
Prior to the pandemic, organizers already were already planning to move Red Earth from its longtime home at the Cox Convention Center - the venerable venue is expected to be phased out once the new downtown Oklahoma City convention center is completed - to the Grand Casino Hotel & Resort, which is owned by the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.
"It's almost kismet that we ended up moving there because the Citizen Potawatomi have done so much for us to be able to still have the event," Cagigal said. "Not just the Citizen Potawatomi, but multiple tribes have asked how they can help. ... That's one of the unique things about Red Earth is that we bring the different groups together, it's not just one tribe."
The Grand Casino closed for about two months due to the COVID-19 outbreak, but reopened May 22 with several safety precautions in place.
"We are excited to host the Red Earth Festival for the first time," said Chad Mathews, the casino's marketing director, in an email. "We are confident that our existing cleaning protocols, temperature checks and mandatory masks requirements along with a streamlined ... festival layout will provide a safe environment to host this event. Although conditions aren’t what we’d all prefer, we expect this year's event to be top-notch in keeping with the experience patrons have grown to expect from the Red Earth Festival and Grand Casino.”
The casino has plenty of space the ensure social distancing, Cagigal said, so the Red Earth Art Market will span three different rooms over 35,000 square feet.
"This is the first year that we've allowed artists to send their art to be sold by either a relative or a booth hosted by Red Earth so that they can still sell their artwork even if they feel like they can't be here in person," she said.
"To be able to have the market in a safe environment and things like that, we had to curtail some other aspects of the festival."
The festival's usual dance competition and grand entries of dancers have been canceled this year, but dancers will perform exhibitions in a theater setting.
"It's not going to be a traditional powwow," Cagigal said. "We'll have multiple dancers ... and they're going to do Men's Fancy Dance, Women's Fancy Dance, Ladies' Buckskin, Men's Hoop Dance. They're going to rotate through, and they're going to have small groups at different times through the day. So, people can see it but without having the huge crowds."
The festival will again feature Ask the Expert from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday, when ticketholders can get an expert opinion on as many as three of their treasured American Indian pieces.
Due to the pandemic, Red Earth will add a VIP preview from 9 to 11 a.m. Saturday, when people can take advantage of limited attendance for a $25 donation, as well as a personal shopper option for at-risk art lovers who don't feel comfortable attending in person.
"We can have patrons call in and make an appointment with the office. Then, we have a group of volunteers that love Native American art ... that are going to be at Red Earth that can take calls. And they're actually going to Facetime with the patron, and they can walk them around and ask them, 'Do you want baskets? Do you want pottery? Do you want jewelry?' ... for a small donation to Red Earth. Then, they can actually be able to see what is at the show and see if there's any artwork they would like to purchase this year."
While the pandemic has mostly kept him at home this year, Worcester, a 2016 Oklahoma Governor's Art Award winner, said he has been working on a new offering for Red Earth this year: miniature versions of his trademark knives.
"They're each out of different materials that I came across this year, so they're going to be each one different. ... They're less than 3 inches, probably about 2 inches in length, but the same detail and everything," he said. "Red Earth's been good to me ... and I'm looking forward to it."
Red Earth Festival
When: 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Grand Event Center at the Grand Casino Hotel & Resort in Shawnee.
Admission: $15 per person at the door. Children younger than 6 are free with a paid adult.
Information: www.redearth.org or 427-5228.