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Drawing crowds: Festivals in Oklahoma

Courtesy Red Earth Inc.

Native American culture, European settlers’ traditions and re-creations of Old West cops-and-robbers shootouts take over Oklahoma cities and towns from time to time. The state has a wide array of festivals and annual special events that give visitors peeks into its past and present.

Red Earth Festival
Oklahoma City
More than 1,200 American Indian dancers and artists from 100 tribes convene in Oklahoma City every year on the second weekend in June for the three-day Red Earth Festival.

“We have representation from Native American tribes, bands and nations from Alaska, Canada, the Plains tribes — all over,” said Eric Oesch, deputy director and director of communications for Red Earth Inc., the nonprofit that runs the Red Earth museum and organizes the festival every year.

The three-day festival kicks off Friday morning with a parade of hundreds of floats and dancers in full regalia making their way through the streets of downtown. Red Earth’s juried art market opens Friday, and dance competitions and demonstrations are held throughout the weekend at the Cox Convention Center in downtown.

Oesch said Red Earth attracts about 30,000 visitors each year and is one of the few festivals where visitors can experience art, dance and culture of America’s Northern and Southern tribes in one venue. Red Earth is also unique in that it’s one of the few dance competitions that has such a large non-Native American audience, Oesch said.

“We strive to make it an educational experience as well,” Oesch said. “One of our main goals is to help educate the public about the significance of the dance or the regalia. So many of our participants, whether they be artists or dancers, are very open about sharing their culture with the people.”

The festival is easy for everyone to enjoy because it takes place indoors at the Cox Convention Center in downtown, which has air conditioning, handicapped accessibility and plenty of room for bus parking, Oesch said.

Freedom Rodeo and Old Cowhand Reunion
The town of Freedom has just shy of 300 residents, but every year since 1938, the town’s population explodes as about 5,000 visitors arrive for the Freedom Rodeo and Old Cowhand Reunion, held the third weekend in August.

The rodeo, which is put on by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, is the largest attraction of the three-day event and includes bull-riding and barrel-racing.

Visitors also enjoy nightly street dances with live music, a free chuck-wagon meal and a staged bank robbery, said Sharon Walker of the Freedom Chamber of Commerce.

The Old Cowhand Reunion is a free beef-and-beans meal for guests, and servers usually feed about 1,000 people every year. The chuck-wagon meal began in 1939 as a way to honor cowhands who worked local ranching lands, and organizers still select an area cowhand “who has spent their life at it” to honor every year, Walker said.

The weekend also features the “Great Freedom Bank Robbery and Shootout,” a 45-minute melodrama during which locals stage a cops-and-robbers bank heist and gun battle, complete with some serious stunts.

“They shoot them off the roof, and hope and pray the mattress is still under the hay,” Walker joked.

There’s also a parade, a 5K and fun runs, vendors, and an arts-and-crafts show. Tickets are $7 in advance.

“We do that because we want them to come all three days and take in the rodeo and the dances,” Walker said of the ticket prices. “I think that’s why we have good crowds — because it’s affordable.”

Rachel Carter

Rachel Carter worked as a newspaper reporter for eight years and spent two years as an online news editor before launching her freelance career. She now writes for national meetings magazines and travel trade publications.