There won’t be any teepees or tomahawks at Aldridge Gardens on Oct. 4, but there will be an opportunity to delve into the authentic history of Southeastern Native Americans.
Whispers From the Past: A Native American Experience is an annual daylong festival of hands-on activities, demonstrations, artifacts, lectures and performances with representatives of the local Native American community. Audrey Ann Wilson, Gardens education coordinator, said the event allows visitors of all ages a glimpse into the past and present of the first inhabitants of the area that is now Alabama and neighboring states.
“Having taught in public schools for 26 years, I realize that people are interested in American Indians but often think in stereotypes about the ancient people of the Southeast,” Wilson said. “As the study of Native Americans is a part of the social studies curriculum in Alabama schools, we wanted Whispers to authentically present the prehistoric and historic Alabama cultures as a fun and learning event for every age.”
According to Wilson, Whispers visitors can observe numerous demonstrations including flintknapping, shell carving, pine needle basket-making and Native American games. Vendors will offer such items as handmade flutes, woven cane baskets, handmade bows and arrows, jewelry, artwork, pottery, Indian commemorative coins and artifacts. Authentic food items sold in the Maize Food Court vary from Indian tacos to fry bread to roasted corn, she said.
There will be the “Bean Woman” puppet show and the Three Sisters Garden created especially for the event and containing corn, beans and squash. Hands-on crafts for ages 18 and under will include beading, Cherokee leaf pounding, clay coil pots, gourd crafting, corn grinding and an artifact hunt, she said.
William “Chip” Wente has participated in Whispers four times, where his demonstrations have included historic hunting and fishing techniques and tools, food preservation methods and cooking with homemade pots and a river cane grill.
“I give an initial disclaimer about the [hunting] methods because they can be so extreme,” Wente said. “By today’s standards these techniques would seem brutal, but the objective was to get as much game as possible to put food on the table. The Native Americans were blessed that all they needed was around them, but it didn’t come in a Styrofoam container. They had to go out and get it.”
One of the highlights of Whispers is the Medicine Tail Dancers and Singers, who will “not only entertain but also educate” the Aldridge Garden audiences so they “walk away with a better understanding of our history and culture,” said the group’s leader, Alex Alvarez.
Comprised of representatives of the Creek, Coushatta, Choctaw, Houma and other Native American tribes, the Atmore-based troupe performs powwow dancing from a number of different tribes. The group travels the country to take part in competitions and has performed in a variety of events from the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival to the World Eskimo Indian Olympics in Fairbanks, Alaska.
Alvarez, a member of the Poarch band of Creek Indians and teacher of Native American culture, said group members also encourage a lot of audience participation.
“Being America’s original inhabitants, the Native American is stereotyped a lot — I can’t tell you how many children have asked if we live in teepees or hunt buffalo,” he said. “This festival is a wonderful way to dispel myths and misconceptions about our people by connecting with the audience. If you think about it, I or others in our group might be the only Native American a child ever meets.”
Veronica Davenport, a Green Valley Elementary instructional support teacher, visited Whispers for the first time last year and said the fun she had and the knowledge she was able to share with her students will bring her back this year. She used photos from the 2014 festival to supplement one of her classroom programs, “Visualizing and Verbalizing,” which encourages students to read book passages then visualize what they see in their heads.
“Their eyes got so big in amazement and fascination, and we had long discussions about how different things are today, when we just go to the grocery store rather than having to find and grow food or make everything we use,” Davenport said. “This experience really helps the children visualize what things were like and how they have changed.”
Janelle Whetstone, who resides in Riverchase and is of Native American descent, said there is something for everyone at Whispers From the Past.
“Not only are there a lot of Native Americans in Alabama, but many people may have Native American blood somewhere in their background, yet never explored the culture,” Whetstone said. “Whispers gives you a great hands-on and interesting opportunity to do just that.”
Whispers From the Past, which drew more than 1,500 visitors last year, will run from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Oct. 4, with an Oct. 11 rain date. Entry is $10 for adults and $5 for children, with those 2 years and under free.
Offsite parking will be at Bed Bath & Beyond, Lorna Road, with free trolleys running continuously from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.
For more information about Whispers From the Past, go to aldridgegardens.com or call 682-8019.
Whispers from the Past
- Oct. 4, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.
- Aldridge Gardens
- Tickets: $10 (adults), $5 (children)