LeEstes Keiser Hamm spent countless hours telling her children and other kin about their Muscogee Creek tribe ancestry — their culture and their traditions. But there was something "Big Ma," as the 4-foot-9 family matriarch was known, kept to herself: She feared what outsiders would do if they knew of her roots.
That secret slipped only after her daughter Mittie Wood started the annual Mother's Day Native American Pow Wow in her own mother's honor with the blessing of the Pasco County commissioners back in 1991.
"Do you know what you're doing?" Wood, now 68, recalls her late mother asking. "They're gonna come get us and take us to Oklahoma."
"She still feared that. Her great-grandmother was on the Trail of Tears," Wood explained, referring to the forced migration of tens of thousands of American Indians from southeastern United States in the 1830s. "She didn't want to be taken."
For all of her 78 years Big Ma could never completely shake the fear of openly sharing her heritage, but under the safety of the park oaks, she quietly enjoyed the powwow her daughter and the organization she founded, the Native American Indian Culture Inc., brought to the riverbanks at the Withlacoochee River Park in Dade City.
"Our Mama was honored every day of our life. Every day," said Wood, who said she wanted to show all mothers how important they are in everyone's culture.
This year's celebration begins today and continues through Sunday, marking the powwow's 21st year.
Wood said the powwow was born after her twin granddaughters, who wore traditional Creek regalia, started kindergarten and were teased at school. She started voluntarily educating Pasco's schoolchildren about American Indian culture and soon saw a shift in acceptance. She began planning a powwow to showcase traditions like dance, storytelling, blow guns and flint knapping. The first year drew about 600 people over the three days, she said. Now the turnout is more like 2,500 to 3,000 throughout the weekend.
The park includes A Creek Village built years ago specifically for the powwow, as well as an arena where storytelling, demonstrations and performances are held. Of course, the drums — the heart beat of their society — will be featured throughout the powwow. Participants will also be staying at an on-site Civil War encampment.
"It's like you're stepping back in time," said event organizer Sharon Thomas, who is Wood's daughter and the mother of the now 26-year-old twins, Tomi Mason and Toni Thomas.
"We wanted to show some of the history, the joy and the laughter and the dancing," said Thomas, 51, who is a teacher at Pasco Elementary.
They also stress the importance of ecology and how everyone can conserve resources and live in unity with the world around them.
"The thing about the Native Americans is we don't waste anything," Thomas said. "It's a way of life."
While the powwow is dedicated to Big Ma, the women said, it goes out to all mothers.
"She (a mother) is the backbone of society and she has the very important role of bearing life and men can't do that," Thomas said.
Big Ma died a decade after the powwow began, and her ashes were released in the Withlacoochee River, not far from the powwow site. But her spirit lives through her family and the simple message she taught them:
"Be proud of where you come from, no matter where it is."