Native American Dancer, North Georgia Pow Wow

Contestant in the Ladies’ “Fancy Dance” Competition

The Cherokee County Indian Festival

Our Favorite Georgia Pow Wow


Picture yourself in the middle of a vast green field, on the perimeter of a sacred circle. The throbbing pulse of tribal music fills the air with an insistent beat, until you feel its rhythm coursing through your veins. Voices rise and fall in polyphonic harmony, with a power and passion that seems almost otherworldly. Dancers prance and twirl in time, their costumes a whirling technicolor dream. Red-shouldered hawks circle above in an equally mesmerizing aerial waltz. We are here to celebrate Mother’s Day, and Mother Earth, and the beauty of all Creation. This is the Cherokee County Indian Festival, our favorite Georgia Pow Wow.


Native American Dancer, North Georgia Pow Wow

Dancers Compete For Cash Prizes in Elaborate Traditional Costumes


My interest in indigenous cultures can be traced back to my early 20s, long before I visited the Zulus of South Africa, the Kalinago of Dominica, the Bedouin of Jordan or the Polynesians of Tahiti. It all started with a World History course I took in college, which focused on Colonialism and the devastation it had on the planet’s traditional tribal societies. Around the same time, I decided to interview my beloved grandfather about our family history, which was when I first learned about my Scottish and American Indian ancestry.


Native American Musician Arvel Bird, North Georgia Pow Wow

Native American/Celtic Musician Arvel Bird


I started reading everything I could about these two seemingly disparate cultures. I learned– as Native American/Celtic crossover artist Arvel Bird pointed out during his performance at the pow wow yesterday– that they actually had a lot in common. Both Scottish and Native American societies were tribal in structure; used drums and flutes as primary musical instruments; had nature-based spiritual beliefs; and were oppressed for centuries by colonial imperialists. I did research papers on the lack of AmerIndian influence on modern American culture. And, perhaps most significantly, I began attending the Cherokee County Indian Festival, my first Georgia pow wow, every Mother’s Day weekend.


Native American Teepee, North Georgia Pow Wow

Hand-Painted Shield, With a Teepee in Background


It was here, more than 20 years ago, that I first fell in love with tribal culture– the art, the music, the rituals, the people, and the spiritual belief in Nature as a sacred thing we are bound by honor to protect. My grandfather spent most of his life in Texas and New Mexico, and he and my grandmother frequently traveled out West, so my budding interest in Native American culture brought us even closer together. I treasure the memories of taking them to the pow wow several times before they passed away. When I took Mary there for the first time in 2009, just two months after my grandmother died, I remember crying my eyes out as the drums pounded and the singers sang and the dancers danced. I looked to the heavens and knew they were there with me, watching over me, proud of me and my family and the new life we were building for ourselves. 


American Indian Dancer at North Georgia Pow Wow

The Proud Warrior Image Remains Integral in Native American Culture


Due to our busy travel schedule, we hadn’t been to our favorite Georgia pow wow since 2010. But not much has changed. We could hear the thunderous drums echoing through the hills before we even parked the car. Dancers from various tribes dressed in elaborate costumes of every possible color– some more traditional and earth-toned, others almost neon in radiant brilliance, but all of them incorporating natural elements such as feathers, bones and fur. As we made our way past food vendors selling fried bread, Indian corn and bison burgers towards the sacred circle at the center of Canton’s Boling Park, we could hear the announcer calling for the Inter-tribal, in which everyone is welcomed to enter the circle and dance.


Save the Horses at Georgia Pow Wow

Saucy, a Dwarf Mare Rescued By Save the Horses


But, while music and dancing may take center stage, the Cherokee County Indian Festival offers a lot more than that. Festival organizer (and staunch wildlife advocate) Chipa Wolfe always brings some of his own animals, and this year featured 22-year-old Thunder The Buffalo and gorgeous Painted Pony Kid Kola. He also invited the non-profit equine rescue charity Save The Horses, whose adoptable dwarf mare Saucy drew quite a crowd of kids eager to pet her.


Great Horned Owl from Dale Arrowood's "Winged Ambassadors"

Great Horned Owl From Dale Arrowood’s “Winged Ambassadors” Show


One of our favorite acts at the festival was the Winged Ambassadors Birds of Prey Show. The show is hosted by master falconer and ardent conservationist Dale Arrowood, who has been featured on Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and worked with National Geographic. With an entertaining mixture of humor and educational information, Arrowood gives audiences an up-close introduction to majestic avians such as the Black Vulture, Great Horned Owl and Egyptian Falcon, the latter of which flew directly over our heads in an impressive exhibit of predatory attacks.


American Indian Drums & Flutes Made by Mark Barfoot

Traditional Drums & Flutes Made by Mark Barfoot


For those seeking to learn more about American Indian history, the festival offers a whole section on Primitive Skills demonstrations. Here, you can learn about everything from how Native Americans made arrowheads and other primitive tools to building campfires, skinning and tanning hides, weaving, and shooting a bow and arrow. There are several examples of teepees, and experts on hand willing to talk about any topic of traditional Indian life you care to discuss.


Artist Paul DeLuna at north Georgia Pow Wow

Artist Paul DeLuna Poses With His “I Am America” Painting


The festival features dozens of artists and craftsmen working in every possible medium you can imagine, from jewelry, leather, and pottery to gourd-carving and ancient weaponry. I was instantly drawn to the colorful drums and gorgeous wooden flutes of Mark Barfoot, a part-Onondaga, part-Cherokee artist whose work has appeared in the Smithsonian and Peter Buffet‘s musical Spirit: The 7th Fire. One of his red cedar flutes adorns the wall of our kitchen. But the artist whose work resonated with me most powerfully was part-Apache Florida native Paul DeLuna: His painting of an Indian warrior in front of an American flag (which reads “I was not born in America. It was born on my land. I am America.”) is a striking reminder of the violent history of our nation, and the oppression of a proud people whose blood courses through my body.


American Indian Drummers at north Georgia Pow Wow

Drummers Pound Out An Insistent Tribal Rhythm


Though we’ve traveled all over the world and immersed ourselves in myriad different tribal cultures, coming back to this intimate north Georgia pow wow somehow feels like coming home. It seems somehow appropriate that this cultural celebration happens every Mother’s Day weekend, because it reminds us that Mother Nature has given birth to all of us– humans, animals, the grass, the sky, every living thing on the planet. Her air, earth, fire and water have nurtured us throughout our lives, and the fruits of her harvest have nourished us at every stage of our growth.


As we honor our own mothers this Mother’s Day, the Cherokee County Indian Festival reminds us to honor our Mother Earth, and to take care of her as she has taken care of us. It’s a message we would all do well to remember, each and every day of the year.  –Bret Love; photos by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett


If you enjoyed this story about our favorite Georgia Pow Wow, you might also like: 

NEW MEXICO: Top 5 Eco Attractions

SOUTH AFRICA: Zulu Memories

DOMINICA: Exploring Kalinago Territory

JORDAN: The Bedouoin of Wadi Rum

TAHITI: Polynesian Culture at the Tiki Village


48 Responses to The Cherokee County Indian Festival: Our Favorite Georgia Pow Wow

  • Laurence says:

    Love the shot of the owl and the shield 😀

    • Thanks, Laurence! I should’ve shared the picture of the woman who was holding the owl. She was equally striking– a 60-something grandma with perfect helmet hair and enough huge silver and turquoise necklaces bring Mr. T down.

  • What a great festival…I attended a similar one a couple years ago and it was a great and eye opening experience. Great stuff!

    • Where was the one you went to, DJ? I’ve been to a few different ones around Georgia, but haven’t attended any of the big out of state ones. I’ve heard about great gatherings in FL and NC.

  • I feel like I was right there at this festival with you. Thanks for bringing to life without cliches.

  • What a great experience! I’ve been thinking a lot about why there is this fascination with Native American culture–even for those of us with no personal heredity–and I think it’s because of an innate desire to connect with our environment and what it means to be human.

    • I think it also has something to do with the fact that you don’t SEE Native American culture openly celebrated in most parts of the U.S. in the same way you see indigenous cultures celebrated in other parts of the world. So there seems to be an air of exotic mystery about it.

  • Talon says:

    My kids have been to a couple of pow wows. Even though it isn’t their birth culture (they’re adopted), I like them to connect to our family’s culture. It’s a great way for non-Indians to get to see a different side of us as well.

    • I agree. I love that the Cherokee County festival is so inclusive, encouraging people of all races and ages to join the sacred circle and dance. I think they have a lot of respect for anyone who chooses to celebrate Native American culture.

  • Melanie Murrish says:

    Touching post and wonderful photos. I have a tear in my eye thinking about Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown; it kept me awake at night.

    • I know what you mean, Melanie. The truth of America’s history is brutal and bloody. It’s very hard, once you learn it, to reconcile that history with our image as “Land of the free, home of the brave.”

  • Kathryn says:

    I think this is a wonderful Mother’s Day Tradition to go to this Cherokee Indian County Pow Wow. I love that you can hear the thundering drums before you even arrive 🙂

  • I went to a Pow Wow before I owned a camera and still wish I’d been able to capture those colors. So glad you did!

    • I have some REALLY great Native American portraits I did back in the days of print film, when my daughter was 3-4 years old. But I have no idea where they are. Need to dig them out of the attic at some point.

  • I’m amazed at how traveling has opened me up to the patchwork of my own origins. My grandmother has always loved tracing our genealogy, but I’ve recently been interested on digging up where we came from, especially now that I live close to the British Isles.

    My grandparents are snowbirds and spend half the year in Arizona. Since I was small, they’ve always taken me to museums to learn about Native American culture and history, and I think it’s an oft-overlooked part of our history as Americans.

    • Yeah, our Native American past seems to get swept under the carpets of history. I think most Americans are probably too ashamed to openly acknowledge the travesties of justice American Indians suffered at the hands of Colonial Imperialists. I may end up posting a thesis I wrote in college about Native American culture and its place in modern society.

      I want to research more about my own family’s origins, particularly the Scottish side. But, thus far, Scotland’s Tourism Board hasn’t even responded to my emails…

  • Adam says:

    That’s really neat that it happens on Mother’s Day weekend. I can also relate to your interest in indigenous cultures. When I studied briefly in Australia, I was really interested in the local politics and the regional history around the Aboriginal culture.

    • That’s very cool, Adam. I’ve been fascinated by Aboriginal culture for many years, and even studied the didgeridoo for a while. The history of their oppression is particularly fascinating to me because of how recently they were given equal rights. Would love to have a chance to get to Australia someday to spend time with them and learn more about them on a personal level.

  • Penny Sadler says:

    Hey Bret,
    I think what resonates with me the most is the same with you, the painting. It really hits you in the heart.
    Food for thought! Seems like the festival is a nice way to bring the message to the masses.

    • It’s amazing to me that the message at these festivals is always about living in harmony, both with nature and with each other. When you think about what the American settlers did to the Native American Indians– how they took their land, introduced crippling diseases, broke promises and, in many cases, killed or enslaved whole tribes– it’s amazing that they mostly have positive attitudes. It’s a testament to the strength and conviction of their belief in the symbiosis between humanity and the health of our planet.

  • Lovely! I have Cherokee ancestry. Love the photos.

  • This was a great read, guys. So glad to see that our Native American history is being preserved.

    • Thanks, Barbara! We’re hoping to do a trip out West one day soon, hopefully with my daughter, to visit the area my grandfather grew up in and explore all the Native American landmarks in the Four Corners area. I want to rent an RV and do a 3-week or month-long road trip through that whole region of the country.

  • beautiful! i love attending pow wows. it’s such an incredible cultural experience.

  • Larissa says:

    very interesting piece. And a good reminder that the heritage of the earth we came from is just as important as the blood.

  • Larissa says:

    I also thought the similarities between the Native American and Scottish cultures an interesting comparison. After visiting Scotland recently I can certainly see it!

    • Yeah, that part really struck me, because I’d read a lot about each of those cultures and yet never connected the dots between them. Hearing Arvel Bird’s comments (and music) was really inspiring, and helped me understand a lot of the feelings I’ve head about tribal societies, yet not quite understood.

  • deborah Portwood says:

    Hey there I work for Rolling Thunder and would like to request a copy of this story/paper if you don t mind …we could use it to sell sponsors please for next year! Thanks Deb @ 103 Southwoods drive Jasper ga 30143 or call me directly @ 404-791-0417

  • That is beautiful. I love the sound of Indian drumming…so incredible.

  • Great read, as always.

    The owl shot is fantastic. And a great way, indeed, to celebrate Mother’s Day and Mother Nature.

  • Travelogged says:

    I love how vibrant these photos are — I can really feel the energy of the pow wow!

  • Thanks to you all for supporting what was another beautiful Mother’s Day PowWow as its only as strong as those of you who attend. Have a happy day, Chipa

  • Dale says:

    This reminds me of a commitment I made to myself for when we finally stop somewhere.

    I’m to learn more about my Welsh heritage, I’m to take my Grandfather to Wales so he can show me where he spent his youth as part of a coal mining family & I’m to learn a craft – either from England or Wales – that I can help preserve in my own way.

    Preservation & recognition of the past is important now, not something we have to attempt to preserve when it’s too late and it’s slipped out our fingers.

    Thanks for helping me realise some of this.

  • It all sounds fascinating — including the connections between various tribal cultures on both sides of the Atlantic. If I ever get to attend I’d like to catch the Winged Animals Birds of Prey Show. (I love the killer stare of the great horned owl.)

    • This was the second time we’d seen the Winged Ambassadors show, and they always do a great job. Lots of humor and entertainment mixed in with the education, and lots of different birds (2 kinds of owls, falcon, vulture, etc.). And you just can’t beat the feeling of a deadly predator flying a few feet over your head at top speed.

  • Great pictures! The colours are so vibrant.

    • Thanks, Bethaney! It was a challenging shoot because the sky went from rain clouds to full sun, and our lens’ AF feature was broken, so we had to shoot everything in full manual mode. With changing light conditions and LOTS of motion, it wasn’t easy, but we’re glad you liked the results!

  • Love the “I am America” painting

    • Me, too! I think most Americans could use that as a reminder on a daily basis, especially when the subject of immigration comes up. A lot of people seem to forget that their ancestors were immigrants, too!

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  • Tony says:

    I enjoyed reading your coverage of this event. The message of we are one with the earth and she takes care of us as we take care of her should be at the forefront of everyone’s mind. Thank you for sharing!
    Tony recently posted..Classic American Road Power – Uke’s Harley-DavidsonMy Profile

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