Chris “Ding Ding” Blackburn and Amanda Montgomery // Portraits by Chad Riley
On Thanksgiving and the day after, Atmore is a sight to behold, and thousands do. They come from all over for the pageantry, traditions and celebration of heritage that is the Poarch Band of Creek Indians. They come for pow wow.
Two such people in attendance since childhood at the celebration of Native Americans are Chris “Ding Ding” Blackburn and Amanda Montgomery. Blackburn is the tribe’s planning and events coordinator. Montgomery is the family services director. They are also ambassadors through dance, working hard at what they do. It shows. Many visiting the pow wow come for the festivities, enjoy the food and shop for Indian-made crafts. The two-day event is an amazing and unique sight for South Alabama. The Indian roasted corn alone is worth the trip. But many dancers are here for more than fun. They are here to compete.
They perform before judges, dressed in full regalia indicative of heritage. Many compete for over $130,000 in prize money. They are not the only ones. In addition to the
Poarch Band, other tribes from throughout America are here to compete too.
Blackburn, who has danced since childhood days in the late 1970s, has grown through the ranks. He oversees the tribe’s prestigious Pow Wow Club. “I started dancing when I was 10 years old,” he recalls. “Back then, our tribal dances were taught and handed down by family members, our elders or other dancers.” That was before the club.
“The Pow Wow Club educates our young people and adults about the Creek’s and the pow wow’s culture,” he says. “I have been all over the United States and Canada, participating in pow wows and similar events. I wanted to bring that culture back and share it with our people.”
Membership in the group is not guaranteed. It’s written in the Poarch Creek Youth Pow Wow Club application, which states, “This is a competitive process. There is limited space so not all applicants are guaranteed to be selected. Youth applicants are chosen based on application completeness, tribal membership, essay question answers, grades, previous dance experience, and participation in extracurricular activities and community service.” Being accepted into the club is an honor mixed with hard work. For the chosen ones, currently about 60 male and female children and adults, pow wow meetings and dance practice occur every Tuesday night. If you are a member, you will be there. Exceptions are rare.
In addition to being a dancer, Montgomery is a Poarch Creek Indian princess, one of several chosen annually.
Princesses range in age from childhood to elders and are chosen through a point system, including an interview process,
talent demonstration, appearance and knowledge of cultural items. “It is a way for the women to be more involved in our culture and dancing,” says Montgomery. She noted that princesses serve one year, from Thanksgiving Day to the next Thanksgiving Day. They represent the tribe throughout the year at public events, as well as tribal gatherings across Alabama and beyond. Montgomery is the tribe’s first senior adult princess; her term expires on November 23, 2023, but her dancing continues. “The ladies have different styles than that of the men,” she says. “Typically, we do a slower, graceful style of dance. We also do a jingle dance, which is a healing dance. Jingles attached to our dresses make a jingling sound as we move.”
As for the men, their dance is typically more energetic and faster-paced, with more twists and turns than a Birmingham highway. “Each dance showcases the performer’s style and interpretation of movements. The men’s traditional dance tells a story of warriors going into battle or a hunting ritual,” says Blackburn. “If you watch our men dance, notice each has his own little style. That is a big thing with the men’s dancing.”
“The traditional dances go back to our origin,” he continues. “In the beginning, this was the dance of warriors who were fortunate to return home from battle. Other dances are performed, including those indicative of hunting rituals. The biggest, and at times most difficult, part of learning the dance is keeping up with the songs. New songs come out about every weekend. Each drum group composes its own songs.”
As seen at the pow wow, musicians are placed around a massive drum, striking it in unison while singing as performers dance. At times, they are a good-natured (albeit sneaky) lot. During the competition, Blackburn knows some drummers will try to trick you. “They watch you and then suddenly switch the tempo, change the beat or just stop playing,” he recalls. “You have to respond in dance accordingly.” Montgomery laughs, patting Blackburn on the back, and adding, “Yeah, but Chris likes to trick them too. He is also well known as one of the people who can do it all. He dances, sings and is a drummer.”
The two join hundreds of dancers, singers and drummers, representing over 20 tribes from throughout the U.S. and Canada converging on Atmore for the Thanksgiving extravaganza. The event originally began as a one-day activity but expanded due to its popularity. Last year, the event had over 17,000 attendees.
The pow wow was first held in 1971 and, except for the two years down due to COVID, has occurred every year since.
Though dance contests and drummer competitions are performed throughout the days, other activities also await, putting the “wow” in pow wow. For the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, the pow wow is a homecoming celebration to show their rich cultural heritage and share the time with families, friends and neighbors. Visitors are treated to unique crafts and goods for sale by local artisans and vendors. In addition to the aforementioned oak wood fire-roasted corn, popular food favorites include barbecue, buffalo burgers, ham and fried chicken. And let us not forget Thanksgiving. Turkey and dressing dishes are served too. “Many guests include us in their family Thanksgiving holiday,” says Chris. “They have dinner at home and then come here for the afternoon.”
Opening day activities include the grand entry, a parade of dancers, performers, drummers, and more. Most are in native regalia and dress, blazing with colors. Recent pow wows included tribes from Mississippi to Oklahoma, all gathering for fun, fellowship, food and dance.
Speaking on last year’s activities, Tribal Chair of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians Stephanie Bryan said, “Pow wow is a time of celebration that we all look forward to throughout the year. We are grateful for those who take this special opportunity to experience part of our 50th year [this year is 51] Native American tradition. It is a true joy to share this cherished time with so many people, from places both near and far. ”
Indeed, this is two days of joyous celebration and a time of remembrance, but there is more.
“When wearing my ancestral dress for the dance or my princess title as an ambassador, I think of my grandparents and great-grandparents,” says Montgomery. “I was blessed to know them from this community. I knew the struggles they had that we do not have today. Representing the tribe in dance, I feel a personal responsibility to carry on our traditions in the right way that would make my grandparents proud.”
“What we are passing on now to our children is very important,” she continues. “We do not want to lose that. I tell our younger generation the importance of making sure our traditions are not lost and that we are representing our tribe well.”
Blackburn agrees, adding, “When performing I look at these young people dancing, many are children. My hope is someday these 7 – 9-year-olds will replace me. They too will teach their children. I want our traditions as Creek Indians to never be lost. I want these children to carry on our teachings, long after I am gone. I want them to follow their dreams.”
From watching the dance of their elders, from hearing stories in song, all while savory corn roasts, pow wow is for everybody. The original Thanksgiving in Plymouth, Massachusetts, featured Native Americans joining visitors in giving thanks. Thanksgiving Day in Atmore does so, too.
The 51st Annual Thanksgiving Pow Wow
November 23-24, 2023
6477 Jack Springs Road Atmore, Alabama
Admission is $10 for one day and $15 for both days. Thursday’s activities include the 10 a.m. gate opening and activities on the mound. The Princess Contest is set for approximately 11 a.m. and the Grand Entry occurs at 1 p.m.