BROOKSVILLE — Tammy Heon admits the Brooksville Native American Festival has a special place in her heart.
Perhaps it is because Heon was there from the beginning, sitting with the festival's founders and organizers, Mary Kirkconnell and Paul DeLuna, helping to make the event a reality when she secured a $7,500 "minority convention grant" through Visit Florida to help create a website and promote the event through regional and national advertising.
The number of people who share Heon's love for the festival has been growing steadily, and record numbers may be walking through the gates this weekend when the fourth annual festival takes place Feb. 4 and 5 at Florida Classic Park, east of Brooksville.
The reason? After a nomination submitted by the Florida's Adventure Coast Visitors Bureau, the festival was recently named one of the Southeast Tourism Society's 2017 Top 20 events.
With that designation, the festival will reach an unprecedented number of people in listings to more than 1,600 media outlets throughout the southeastern United States.
"This is a big deal," said Heon, Hernando County's manager of tourism development. "There is no way any of us could do that individually. … It is invaluable from a (public relations) perspective."
Kirkconnell couldn't agree more.
"I was just floored that the tourism board nominated us," she admits. "It is really exciting."
Heon credits Shannon Werner, visitor information specialist at the Visitors Bureau, with making the award possible. In fact, Werner's efforts also won the same award for two other local events — the Weeki Wachee Swamp Festival and Art in the Park.
Kirkconnell said the Native American Festival drew in about 5,000 visitors its first year and more than 7,000 the second, which she said was a good indication that this type of event was needed. Last year, more than 8,000 people attended the festival, during a cold weekend of torrential rain.
"We were shocked that people still wanted to come in the pouring rain," Kirkconnell said. "It was amazing."
The local festival is considered one of the largest events on the powwow circuit, Kirkconnell added.
"We are really happy about that," she said. "We want to support native people and try to represent the culture in the best way possible."
The two-day festival features nonstop entertainment, music, dance, primitive skills demonstrations, American Indian food vendors and more than 35 other vendors selling American Indian and Indian-inspired arts and crafts. There also will be unique and creative activities for children.
The featured musical act will be Shelley Morningsong, who won the Native American Music Festival Awards' Artist of the Year honors for 2016. She will be joined by her husband, Fabian Fontenelle, one of the original members of the American Indian Dance Theater, who will bring his traditional northern Plains-style of dancing, storytelling and drumming.
"Shelley has a gorgeous voice," Kirkconnell said. "She is an amazing, beautiful singer and person."
New for 2017 will be the Na Ka Oi Polynesian Dancers, whose dances share the history, culture and stories of the Polynesian people. The show includes a high-energy fire knife dance.
Returning this year will be the popular Iron Horse Dancers and Drummers, a multitribal group from Oklahoma that offers educational performances in various dance styles.
Visitors will also have an opportunity to enjoy native foods such as Indian tacos, buffalo burgers and fry bread. In addition, there will be eastern and western encampments where visitors can look at artifacts and watch primitive demonstrations.
RV and tent camping will be available, giving visitors an option of staying the day or spending the weekend.
Kirkconnell said visitors to this year's festival will find additions at the park, including permanent restrooms and a shaded pavilion, which will keep guests in the shade — or out of the rain.
But Kirkconnell says she's certain this year's festival will be rain-free.
"I have a great feeling the weather will be perfect," she said. "I feel it in my bones."