Native American Heritage celebrated

By Greg Gelpi

His father was laid off in the 1950s when his boss learned of his being Native American, and then learned to hide his heritage and culture by claiming to be Mexican, Will Rogers said.

Rogers, 64, a Riverdale resident and member of the Cherokee Nation said that Native Americans were not always recognized as equals or appreciated for what they've done for the country.

"The Native Americans were the original settlers and gave a great deal to our American life," he said.

Trying to maintain his heritage and the traditions of his ancestors, Rogers said he is learning the Cherokee language, a language his father didn't pass on, worried it would make others look down on him.

"He didn't want to teach me a lot of the culture, a lot of the language because he wanted me to fit into the metropolitan world," Rogers said.

He also speaks to area churches about his heritage and has created a series of paintings to remember the Trail of Tears, a trail his great great grandmother walked.

"It's very important to keep that heritage alive," Rogers said. "That's the identity for this people. It gives them a sense of community."

Sharing and celebrating the culture also builds understanding and shatters walls that exist between cultures, he said.

Native Americans, history buffs and members of the community will be doing just that during the 26th annual Native American Heritage Day.

The festival will take place on the grounds behind Stately Oaks Plantation in Jonesboro as Native Americans and others recreate a village of living history, demonstrating many of the practices, arts and foods of 500 years ago, Ted Key, one of the organizers, said. He added that the areas around Jonesboro, Lovejoy, Hampton and other parts of the Southern Crescent are rich with Native American history and artifacts since the Cretes lived in the area and a major Native American trade route ran through downtown Jonesboro.

"We know they were right there on the grounds of the event," Key said, describing the area as a small hunting village.

Arrowheads are found throughout the area, he said, explaining that is how Arrowhead Shopping Center got its name. What once was a major Native American site is now a parking lot.

Among the activities will be arrowhead making, fire making, story telling, traditional barbecue, bead work, weaving, musket firing and a museum.

Along with the demonstrations, visitors will be asked to participate in the activities, Key said. From tasting the food to trying blow dart guns, the experience will be hands on.

"They pull you out and ask you to dance with them," he said of the Native American dance that will be performed.

Although the area has a history of Native American presence, it's hard to say how many Native Americans still live in the area, Key said, but added more come to the festival each year.

The event, sponsored by Historical Jonesboro, will be held from 1 to 5 p.m. today. Gates open at 10 a.m.

Admission is $4 for adults and seniors and $1 for children. House tours are $8 for adults, $6 for seniors, $4 for children ages 5 to 11 and free for children under 5. Discounts are available if purchased with a house tour.

For more information, call (770) 473-0197 or visit www.historicaljonesboro.org.