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How It All Began-Knoxville's First Powwow
by Mark Finchum

That first year will never be forgotten, after all it was partly a cowboy's fault.

For years Nashville and Memphis had hosted powwows.  Knoxville, in the middle of what historically had been Cherokee lands, had no such cultural event.  It became my mission to rectify that situation!

In 1986 I served as a member of the Tennessee Commission of Indian Affairs.  At one of our quarterly meetings, representatives of the Tennessee Historical Commission approached us about designating 1988 as  "The Year of the Cherokee," since that would be the 150th anniversary of the Trail of Tears.

It seemed to me, however, that a better choice would be "The Year of the Indian," so as to include the other tribes in Tennessee.  Both commissions accepted the change and a beautiful, colorful poster of Sequoyah was printed and distributed to schools across the state in honor of "The Year of the Indian."

What better time for Knoxville to host its first powwow?  Among those who became heavily involved in the project were:  Toni Fortune, a teacher in Harriman; John Evans, a banker; Ray Foster, a teacher in Oak Ridge, his wife Yvonne, and both of their daughters and a granddaughter; Walter Kaskuske, owner of an appliance repair shop, and his wife Ruby; Ina Swanson, an accountant and daycare operator; and Joan Barnett from the Student's Museum at Chilhowee Park.

Andy Smalls, better known as Marshall Andy, host of "Riders of the Silver Screen," was planning a big convention of cowboy movie stars and fans for the spring of 1987.  I suggested to Andy that he invite Iron Eyes Cody, the star of those famous "tear in the eye" commercials for Keep America Beautiful to be a guest.  Andy agreed and for the first time Indian people were represented at the "Riders of the Silver Screen Film Caravan."

At the convention banquet, about a half dozen of us in ribbon shirts and dresses sat around a single table off to one side.  It was a strange feeling to look out over the convention center ballroom at table after table of men in their fanciest western clothes, complete with ten gallon hats and six-guns. 

When Iron Eyes Cody stood to speak, he looked in our direction and said that it was like looking at a reservation.  Next year, he said, he wanted to see more Indians in attendance.

I thought, "What a great concept!  We could have a cowboy convention inside and an Indian powwow outside!  Nothing could be more 'American' than that."

Andy said that the 1988 "Riders of the Silver Screen" event would be in May.  I then contacted the World's Fair Site (as it was called then) to ask about scheduling a powwow for the same weekend Andy was planning his cowboy convention.  That is when our first roadblock appeared.

The site had been contracted to the Student's Museum in Chilhowee Park for a dog show.  Jim Begalla, Fair Site manager, said I could contact the museum and maybe work something out.  I spoke then to David Sincerbox, who was director of the museum, and found that they had cancelled their plans.  We were free to use the site!  He even put me in touch with Joan Barnett on his staff.  She was an anthropologist and willing to work on organizing a powwow.

And the rest, as they say, is history.