SHAWNEE — Amber DuBoise-Shepherd’s heritage is on display, rendered with care in pen and ink, in a work of art titled “The Greetings and Clans of My Ancestors.”
Appropriately, the black-and-white quartet of self-portraits is displayed in a place of prominence at her booth at the Red Earth Festival, where she was one of the first recipients of the emerging artist award in 2018.
“But I’ve been a part of Red Earth for a long time because my late grandmother used to be a vendor here forever. I remember fighting for seating to go to the powwow as a little kid; my parents would save seats so we could all go watch the grand entry. So, I’ve been coming since I was a kid,” recalled DuBoise-Shepherd, who is affiliated with the Navajo, Sac & Fox and Prairie Band Potawatomi.
“I think it’s important because it gives a venue for Native American artists to come out and sell and show their artwork that they create. … So, you can actually talk to that Native artist and purchase artwork from them, which in turn supports the Native community, because a lot of Native families rely upon the arts for their wellbeing and their livelihood. There’s tons of Native families that this is their main source of income.”
Although it has gone through many changes over the years, the Red Earth Festival remains a rooted part of central Oklahoma’s cultural landscape. Marking its 35th anniversary, the event continues to celebrate American Indian art, dance and culture while providing Native American artists a chance to sell their work.
“It is amazing that this is our 35th year,” said Paula Cagigal, president of the Red Earth Inc. board of directors, who is Cherokee. “My favorite part of Red Earth — and I’ve been coming since I was a little girl — I think is the little dancers. … Some of our dancers are third-, fourth-generation Red Earth. So, it’s amazing just to see the culture and the tradition being passed on.”
Continuing through Sunday, Red Earth is resuming its traditional June dates this year after shifting in 2020 to Labor Day weekend because of the COVID-19 outbreak.
After debuting in 2020 in Shawnee’s Grand Event Center — the festival’s longtime home, the Cox Convention Center, was converted last year into Prairie Surf Studios since Oklahoma City has built a new convention center — Red Earth returned this year to the Citizen Potawatomi Nation-owned venue.
“We’re returning to sort of normalcy, and it’s important for us to realize that we’re all still here, for whatever different reasons that the Creator God has given us,” said fancy dancer Cecil Gray, who is Cheyenne and Kiowa, as he emceed the Saturday morning dance showcases.
Instead of a dance competition, this year’s Red Earth includes dance exhibitions as well as 11 a.m. grand entries of dancers, along with an art market featuring 65 Native American artists from across the country. The traditional powwow and parade are slated to return in the fall as part of a new event planned in conjunction with OKC’s Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
“Doing this keeps the mind going, so I think for my health, this has been good,” the Woodward resident said.
A retired educator, Aitson has showed and sold her traditional handcrafted baskets at Red Earth since 1996. In 2018, she was named the Red Earth Honored One, an award bestowed upon a Native master visual artist whose contributions to American Indian art have been substantial and sustained.
Although she has rarely missed the venerable event, Aitson skipped last year’s Red Earth due to the pandemic.
“I self-quarantined for a year. Did nothing. No shows in 2020. The last thing I did in 2019 was a gallery show in Woodward at the Plains Indians and Pioneers Museum,” Aitson said.
“This is my side hustle. … But this really is the only venue that (Native) people have nearly in Oklahoma to sell their art. So, I think it’s very important.”
Renowned Chickasaw bladesmith Daniel Worcester, who was named the Red Earth Honored One in 2013, likens the intertribal festival to a family reunion. The Ardmore resident, who has participated in Red Earth for 29 years, said he enjoys meeting with fellow artists, collectors and longtime festivalgoers.
“Red Earth has opened up many doors. It provides emerging artists the opportunity to showcase their work, as well as (for) established artists, it provides a way of mentoring to younger artists, as well as the buying public, to educate them on different things about your work,” Worcester said.
“I think it’s really important because it shows that the Native American community is united. They’re united in their artistic expressions, as well as sharing their art with each other.
The vivid colors of Choctaw artist Dylan Cavin’s contemporary paintings drew many attendees to his booth near the entrance of the Red Earth Art Market Saturday morning. A Norman resident who has taken part in Red Earth for about a decade, he said the festival provides vital intertribal showcase for Native artists that is especially vital in Oklahoma, where 39 different tribes have their headquarters.
“With it being the 35th anniversary, I think it’s just become kind of a staple in the Oklahoma City metro area,” Cavin said. “For people being able to come in, meet artists, see Native American art from traditional to contemporary, I think that’s just important.”
Cavin said a venue like Red Earth can help people who don’t know much about Native art overcome preconceived notions.
“There are a lot of contemporary artists who are kind of pushing the boundaries of what Native American art is. You come and you’re in an environment where you can talk to the person and you can see where they’re from, see where they get that creativity and learn about art a little bit,” he said.
For artists like DuBoise-Shepherd, participating in Red Earth is an opportunity to keep strong the ties that bind her to her ancestors. Her grandmother, Adeline Ketcheshawno DuBoise, was a skilled seamstress known for her ribbons shirts, applique designs and men and women’s Native clothing. Although her grandmother died in 2019, her memory lives on at Red Earth.
“When my grandpa was here helping me set up my booth … he was introducing me, ‘This is Adeline’s granddaughter. She’s at Red Earth now,'” she said.
“My late great-grandma was a Navajo weaver, my family were silversmiths, and I just come from a background and all kinds of artists. … Even though I didn’t go into those fields, I’m still carrying that tradition of markets and going and selling. So, that’s very important to me.”
35th Annual Red Earth Festival
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday
Where: Grand Event Center at the Grand Casino Hotel & Resort in Shawnee
Admission: Daily wristbands are $15 per person at the door. Children younger than 6 are free with a paid adult